Here’s what happens when you put an engineering graduate in charge

Why just design an oil refinery when you can manage the whole project?

Alice Parish-Matheson (far left) and Kiri Nunn (centre) helped take the KBR team to victory in this year’s ACTIVE Cup project management competition

Alice Parish-Matheson is used to dealing with big projects. As a process engineer on engineering consultancy KBR’s graduate scheme, her job involves trying to improve the design of large facilities such as oil refineries all over the world.

So it doesn’t seem that surprising that Alice was able to transfer her problem-solving skills to the discipline of project management and help propel her company to victory in a national competition.

The ACTIVE Cup is a chance for all kinds of professionals in the construction industry to learn and test project management techniques. Teams have just two days to run a simulated project, such as the design and building of an environmental plant, in which every hour that passes equals a week in the contest.

In that time they have to organise contracts, manage workflows and deal with unexpected events such as workers’ strikes in an attempt to hit their profit targets – and somehow fit in a few hours’ sleep.

Project management requires strong problem-solving skills – and a lot of Post-It Notes.

From an engineer like Alice’s point of view, last month’s winter 2015 ACTIVE Cup was a chance to better understand how her everyday work fits into the bigger picture – and do a better job as a result. It also counts towards her chartership.

‘For someone like me in an engineering role, I [usually] only see what my department does,’ she says. ‘On projects we get sent copies of the schedules and before I would just look at the end date.

‘Until now, I hadn’t thought about how that chart affects everyone. Now I’m a lot more aware of not just my discipline but the overall project. I’m a lot more interested in things like [project] scheduling.’

KBR project management teams take on huge challenges such as designing and building oil refineries.

But helping her team win this year’s ACTIVE Cup also gave Alice an insight into how her engineering skills could be put to use in a management role. As well as its engineering graduate programme, KBR also runs a project management trainee scheme that’s open to students from range of disciplines, including engineering.

‘Project management is a role in which you can dip into almost every business area,’ says fellow team-member and project management trainee Kiri Nunn. ‘You’ve got to think about finance, about schedules, about people.’

She was attracted to KBR’s graduate scheme because it would allow her to rotate around the company and experience work in different sectors, whether that’s building oil platforms in Norway or helping set up government infrastructure in places like Iraq.

‘I never thought I’d be working for government services but the diversity of projects brings a whole other level to the work,’ says Kiri. ‘Especially when you’re working on projects in austere environments it means there are problems that you’d never think of.’

‘It’s a role in which you can dip into almost every business area.’

So what do students interested in project management need to do to get a job? Demonstrate your leadership, says Kiri. ‘Experience is really important. Anything that proves you’ve taken a leadership role or set up something yourself – it could even be something like a charity event or a party.

‘It can be quite hard to get experience because placements are so competitive but there’s no reason you can’t set up something yourself.’

The ACTIVE Cup competition is run by the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and Cranfield University School of Management. Nominations for teams who want to enter the next competition in June 2015 are due to go live shortly

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