New horizons: careers with engineering consultancies

Opportunities at engineering consultancies aren’t just about civil engineering. Julia Pierce reports.

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Consultancy work can take you to every engineering sector.

With the recent announcement of another round of large government-backed civil engineering projects in the shape of the Road Investment Strategy, engineering consultancy firms are busier than ever. However, alongside these high-profile activities, consultancies commonly associated with civil and structural engineering projects are increasingly bringing their range of expertise to bear on a number of challenges across various sectors. This has created opportunities for those with the right professional and personal skills to diversify and get involved in some unusual and interesting projects outside of what might normally be viewed as ‘typical’ consultancy work.

One of the firms at the forefront of developing such roles is Frazer-Nash Consultancy, which has been working on a research contract with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (DSTL’s) Centre for Defence Enterprise, looking into the possibility of developing a novel armour-attachment system. This is intended to enable the rapid fixing and removal of armour modules onto any military vehicle. The resulting technology should be highly configurable so that different levels of protection can be applied to a wide range of service vehicles, depending on the level of threat to them.

A separate project in the same sector is looking at how to protect soldiers in vehicles from underbelly blast injuries to their lower limbs, such as those sustained when hitting an improvised explosive device (IED). Elsewhere, in the civil aviation sector, the company’s engineers have been collaborating with Airbus to model impact damage on the new A350 XWB, with particular focus on the behaviour of composite components during bird impacts with different speeds and angles, as well as the impact of tyre damage.

Julie Wood, global leader of the planning and project management team at Arup, is not surprised that engineering firms are now stretching themselves in this way. ‘The skills we have as engineers are very valuable — we are natural problem solvers, and as our careers progress we get an idea of what’s important for clients — even though that may not be what the client originally had in mind,’ she said.

She herself progressed from a traditional engineering role to something more diverse over her career. ‘My background was in civil and structural engineering, but during my career I have moved from working on site to leading on projects and a client advisory role,’ she explained.

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Big firms such as Arup are involved in a huge variety of often unusual projects, such as the London Garden Bridge.

While the many civil projects that Arup works on, such as Crossrail and the McLaren Technology Centre, are exciting — ‘where else can you take people to see what you’ve done and actually leave a legacy?’ said Wood — the company’s engineers are also involved in a number of consultancy projects. ‘Arup is known as a design organisation, but it has evolved into more than this over the last 10 years,’ she explained.

‘My design colleagues are still working on projects such as the Garden Bridge in London, but we have around 1,000 people on our consultancy team in the UK.’ This arm of the business has worked on projects as diverse as enhancing the leadership skills of midwives for NHS East England, designing the infrastructure for low-carbon vehicles and creating a pocket habitat for planting wildflowers that can be put on a roof or urban land. ‘The habitat is a 250mm² hessian sack with seeds in that can be arranged over an area to stop land erosion,’ Wood said.

Elsewhere, engineers from Atkins have been involved in a number of unusual projects in the Middle East with an environmental and heritage protection emphasis. Their work has included producing an environmental impact assessment at Barr Al Jissah in Oman to identify a coral community that could have been damaged by a boom in local construction work. As a result of their investigation, the coral was moved onto a specially designed man-made substrate in a location that would not be disturbed. They also prepared a World Heritage Site Management Plan for the historically important Bahla Fort and Oasis settlement — also in Oman — to protect the area from further degradation.

The 13km site had been included on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List due to the vulnerable condition of its earthen structures, danger from erosion, limited local planning controls and hydrological problems. Closer to home, the company’s engineers have been working at the cutting edge of clean energy research, helping to create ITER, the experimental nuclear fusion reactor in southern France, which aims to deliver nuclear fusion on a commercial scale, offering safe, limitless and environmentally clean energy.

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Bahla Fort in Oman: consultancy work can take you all over the world

Not only are the projects detailed here a change from the norm, and demanding of skills from across a number of disciplines, but this area of the business is also expanding rapidly. ‘Our consultancy side will be growing by 300-plus people next year,’ said Arup’s Julie Wood, adding that movement between roles was also supported by her company to provide engineers with as much flexibility and stretching of their skills as possible.

‘Within Arup it’s possible to move from any role to another area of the business — we have a “try it out” period, where people can test a role then make the change or revert to their original position, depending on whether they’ve enjoyed what they do. We take on a larger number of females than other firms, and have a good number of female role models here, too,’ she added.

So, who should apply for these challenges? ‘At Frazer-Nash, we value individuals who work collaboratively with their colleagues and clients,’ said Deborah Ford, head of human resources
at the company. ‘We look for people who want to excel at what they do and are committed to being the very best in their technical field. For us, a good engineer is someone who is prepared to challenge the status quo with their innovative and creative thinking, and as part of the Frazer-Nash team can add real value as they respond to the challenges placed on us by our clients. We’re particularly keen to recruit technical specialists with a passion for project management, business development and leading teams,’ she added.

It seems that while there may be plenty of work around for those engineers interested in the design and implementation of large civil projects, those seeking something a little more unusual now have an increasing chance of finding a role that challenges them. Whether it is ecology, clean energy or defence that interests you, there’s a good chance a consultancy will have it all.

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