With work in 70 different countries and a wide range of sectors, Halcrow is in a position to offer a huge choice of career opportunities, as Margo Cole discovers.
These days it is popular for large companies to have a mission: a statement that defines the firm's position in its market or its key aims. Halcrow considered having a mission, but realised it was far more important to have a 'purpose' that identifies - and explains - exactly what the company does and why it is here.
It is difficult to sum up the diverse work of a large multidisciplinary consultancy like Halcrow in just one sentence. On a day to day level it might seem that different specialists within the company - from structural engineers to environmentalists and building services designers to economists - have little in common. But they do share a single purpose: to sustain and improve the quality of people's lives.
Group board director David Kerr says: 'I think that's why people become engineers or planners and join an organisation like this. It is a socially orientated profession.'
Mandy Clarke, the company's human resources director, echoes that sentiment. 'The core of what Halcrow is about is that we really do believe in doing something that is good not just for the client but for communities and society.'
Halcrow's 3,500 staff are employed in 60 offices - 28 in the UK and 32 overseas - and are engaged in projects in 70 different countries. Although the firm has historically been best known for its bridge and civil engineering expertise, its projects also include water and waste water management, environmental and financial consultancy, transport planning, design and maintenance and building and services design.
Civil engineers make up just one third of the organisation's staff, and Clarke says: 'I don't think we see ourselves as an engineering consultancy, but as a professional consultancy that has a background in engineering. Our clients are not just looking for an engineering solution but for a holistic approach.
'If you are asked to design a bridge you have to look at the impact it will have on the local community and the local infrastructure, ' she continues.
'It is easy to get too focused on doing the calculations and how something's going to stand up rather than how it's going to be used and the impact on people around it.'
The company has always had a reputation for being technologically expert. Now it has developed a set of additional principles to ensure it meets its purpose. These include listening to the needs of clients, being flexible and future orientated, and creating teams of people with the right blend of skills and interests.
Traditional communication barriers within the firm have been broken down and staff are far freer to move between teams, projects, offices and even countries. Without a rigid departmental structure Halcrow employees have the opportunity to develop their own skills, learn new ones and deploy their expertise in a wide range of projects almost anywhere in the world. The more fluid, matrix-like structure within the company also allows for promotion - and salary increases - to be based on merit rather than on waiting for a vacancy, and ensures technical staff can rise to senior positions without having to become administrators.
HALCROW'S UK business has 100 vacancies for highways specialists alone throughout the UK, as Halcrow has commissions for both new build and network management with the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly as well as the Highways Agency.
Framework agreements and long term client relationships are important to the company, making it easier to plan for the future and guarantee workload for new and existing staff. A framework agreement with Network Rail ensures work in that sector, and similar arrangements with the Environment Agency and British Waterways have created a need for river and water specialists.
There are also opportunities in urban and regional planning, environmental consultancy and buildings and structures.
Halcrow competes to attract staff, but does not intend to get involved in a bidding war. 'We're not interested in hired guns who come just for a project or for a higher salary and expect to move on in a couple of years, ' says human resources manager Peter Jackson. 'We're looking for people who fit Halcrow and can see the career opportunities in the future and not just the immediate starting salary.
'The package should be taken as a whole: the role, the colleagues, the location and future prospects, as well as the salary and benefits.'
Human resources director Mandy Clarke adds: 'The real inducers are actually about the role. What do you offer as an organisation? Will you give me the opportunity to progress my career, or to work abroad? Can I work from home now and then, or come back part time after I become a parent?
'We want people to come and ask what we can do for them.'
THE TRADITIONAL role of the engineer was to provide one-off design or management expertise on a project by project basis. Although Halcrow is well qualified to perform this role, an increasing volume of workload comes from looking into the future and developing long term strategic solutions.
Halcrow is involved in these 'strategic thinking' projects in every infrastructure sector - from flood alleviation in the Norfolk Broads to the future of UK air transport. Every project involves technical, economic, financial, environmental and social aspects, and brings together a wide range of disciplines.
One of the company's most recent commissions is to develop a comprehensive improvement plan for the Port of New York & New Jersey. The client is looking for solutions that are both financially and environmentally viable, and will enable the port to develop for the next 60 years.
Other projects include a seven year commission to audit, monitor and review Scotland's road maintenance contracts, and advising the Go-Ahead group in its rail franchise bid.
WITH 32 offices outside the UK, Halcrow offers more opportunities for travel than most consultancies. The company's philosophy is to staff overseas offices locally, but also to view all 3,500 staff as a resource that can be used anywhere in the world. Within the next four years Halcrow intends to grow by another 2,000, with 'national companies' - offices outside the UK - accounting for much of this growth.
However, UK-based Halcrow engineers will continue to be involved in overseas projects.
And the company's reputation around the world - including the Far East, America, Europe and the Middle East - ensures there is a huge variety of projects under way at any time.
Recently the company developed a programme whereby up to 30 people from overseas are seconded to UK offices for between six months and two years.
'The intention is for them to join a team operating in an area that is relevant to their background, experience and skill group, ' explains human resources manager Peter Jackson. 'They get familiar with the culture and really establish good business contacts that they can take back to their home office.'
There are currently 13 people on the secondment programme in the UK, from Asia, Eastern Europe, China and South America. Most are working in Halcrow's water business group.
HALCROW'S HUMAN resources director Mandy Clarke is quite blunt about the type of people who are unlikely to join the company. 'If they're just interested in money they shouldn't be going into this industry, ' she says. But if they are looking for a competitive salary, career progression, flexibility and wide ranging opportunities there is plenty of scope at Halcrow.
Clarke believes the diverse range of opportunities distinguishes Halcrow from many other consultancies. 'We offer the chance to work in some of the most inhospitable places in the world, or the comfort of an office in the UK, ' she says.
'Everyone can move in the direction that suits them best.
They can stay in one office all their lives or move around the county or go abroad; they can also learn new skills and change direction if there are opportunities within a different skill group.'
The average age of Halcrow's employees is 39. Clarke says: 'There is a lot of debate on the professional side of the industry that life ends at 40. But we have a lot of experienced people in this business who've worked for 20 or 30 years and we value that.
They can pass so much to the younger people. I certainly feel that there should be no glass ceiling based on age when it comes to recruitment.'
And youth is no barrier to promotion. The company encourages staff to take responsibility for their own career development. Everyone has an annual career review, and can discuss opportunities for developing new skills or launching new projects.
The company supports employees in their desire to gain a wide range of professional qualifications and sponsors employees through MBAs.
Halcrow has. . .
A 'Flex-time' system that allows you to take up to one day a month off in lieu of time worked.
A staff council with a direct communication line to senior management and the chance to shape policy as well as air individual issues.
A staff training budget of £2.9M in 2002, with 4,169 training days throughout the company in 2001.
A dedicated management training programme at Cranfield Management Development Centre.
A 100% pass rate in the 2002 ICE Professional Review.
An annual staff survey, carried out by external consultants who develop workshops to address areas where the company's performance is seen to be weak.
Investors In People status and external auditing.
A candidate referral system that offers up to £5,000 to any staff member who successfully puts someone forward for employment.
A unified grading structure and pay bands with role definitions and terms of reference published openly on the company intranet.
Insurance benefits including personal accident cover, private medical insurance and permanent health insurance at all grades.
Halcrow's workload in the UK and abroad includes:
The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, UK lNational Water Management Plan, Bangladesh
New York and New Jersey Comprehensive Port Improvement Plan, USA
Urbis, Manchester, UK
Broadland Flood Alleviation Project, UK
El Ferdan Swingbridge, Egypt
The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Monitoring for the Scottish Trunk Road Network, UK
South East and East of England Air Services Study, UK
Al Qasbah Canal, Sharjah, UAE
Attiki Odos Motorway, Greece
Halcrow's newest office is managed by 32 year old Helen Samuels, a senior engineer who joined the company's Exeter office in 1999. 'In a regional office if something needs doing and you put your hand up to do it then you will get it, ' she explains.
Samuels became involved in launching the new Plymouth office when it became clear the volume of work justified a second centre in the South West.
Workload in the region has doubled in the last couple of years.
Samuels is keen to 'expand our capability base and client base', and wants to build the Plymouth office up to a staff of 15, taking on more redevelopment, transport and building commissions while maintaining market share in the traditional area of water.
She foresees little difficulty in recruiting because 'the office has a buzzy feel about it, and living in the South West you have a good quality of life and housing is relatively cheap compared to elsewhere'.
Zahid Mia arrived at Halcrow's Swindon base, Burderop Park, in April on a six month secondment from the company's Bangladesh office.
He originally studied statistics, followed by an MSc in computer science - specialising in GIS and network systems.
Since arriving in the UK he has changed direction to work in the support unit of the water business group, providing the IT back-up needed to put together business development proposals.
Having agreed to extend the secondment to two years, 37 year old Mia has brought his family to Swindon, and his young son has started school.
Mia himself is attending an advanced English language course at a local college.
'Because I am working in business development I should have good writing skills, ' he explains, in perfect English. He plans to spend the next two years developing his own skills in business and IT.
Five years ago marine and coastal engineer Elise Pobjoy responded to a job ad on Halcrow's internal notice board. Within months she had swapped her life in Wiltshire for the Middle Eastern heat, humidity and excitement of Dubai.
'It was kind of terrifying at first, ' says Pobjoy. But, attracted by the prospect of more hands-on engineering, she was not disappointed. 'From the start it was very exciting as the things I was doing on paper were actually being built.'
Pobjoy joined Halcrow's coastal engineering team as an MEng graduate from Nottingham University in 1993. In the UK she had a varied career working in the Swindon design office, on site in Sheerness and with contractor Costain on the M4 widening.
But working abroad, she believes, has helped to accelerate her career development. 'Here in Dubai I have been given more responsibility and have had to work under a lot more pressure, ' she explains. 'But it's also very rewarding and I really enjoy what I do.'
Her experience and workload meant she was able to take and pass her ICE Chartered Professional Review in 2000 and now leads half a dozen projects ranging from small private harbours and hotel beach development projects to coastal protection schemes.
More responsibility means hard work. Pobjoy says she typically works a 47 hour week but sometimes more. But she also has time for a full social life - helped by guaranteed good weather.
'People make huge efforts to make everyone feel welcome, ' she explains, adding that there is a strong social community around the office. 'This helps new engineers find their feet very quickly.'
So would she recommend a stint working outside the UK? 'Absolutely.
Being apart from friends and family can be hard, but it is a fantastic opportunity and I have gained so much experience in Dubai that I would not have got in the UK.'
Civil engineer Peter Smith, has spent most of his working life on airport projects, culminating in his current role as Halcrow's director of air transportation.
'From early in my career I became a planner and converted into project management through having an interest in the clients' operational and commercial objectives, the economics and the whole process of bringing things together, ' he says.
Smith's first job with Halcrow was 10 years ago as project manager for Kuala Lumpur airport, and he has been in his current position for five years.
'I like strategic projects, ' he says.
'The South East Regional Airport Study is one of the most interesting thing we've done.' This study - for the UK's Department for Transport - sets out and appraises the policy options for increasing airport capacity in the south east of England, and forms the basis of public consultation for the government's airport white paper due next year.
Rab Brown, is Halcrow's project director on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and a group director, proving that promotion to the highest levels can be achieved in parallel with a site-based career. He is a chartered civil engineer who has spent 32 years on major heavy civil engineering projects around the world, mainly with Halcrow.
His CV includes the world's longest irrigation tunnel - the 81km long Orange-Fish Tunnel in South Africa, the Dubai Dry Dock, hydro-electric projects in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, and the role of resident engineer on the English side of the Channel Tunnel. In 1994 Halcrow offered Brown the job of project manager on the Oresund Link but, before he got there, he was asked to make a detour to discuss a new venture: the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
'I thrive in the environment of construction sites, but now my job is to understand the client's needs and to make things easier for the constructors and the engineers, ' he explains. 'It's about managing people, but I couldn't do it without the technical training I have had throughout my career.'
Having attained a senior management role, 57 year old Brown is still hugely enthusiastic about his job, saying: 'I couldn't do what I've done without a basic set of skills in ground engineering. It's basic engineering - it's what I love to do.'
James Self joined Halcrow straight from university as a water resources engineer. 'They were doing a proposal for a very big project and I realised I much preferred putting together proposals and the business development side of the job to doing engineering calculations, ' he explains.
Three years on he is manager of the newly formed development support unit, which is responsible for all the proposals that go out of the water group. The five strong team - made up of both engineers and business development specialists handles all the enquiries and new business opportunities that come in to the group.
'What I like about the post is that I seem to work with senior staff a lot more than when I was on the engineering side, ' says 25-year old Self. 'The unit is only a year old and we are constantly in demand.'
Self thinks Halcrow is 'more flexible than some consultancies', and says: 'You certainly have to put in the effort yourself, but if you do, you will get there.'