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Q&A | Muddy boots not required

A colleague told WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff development director Katherine Bright that she would never pass her CEng without getting “muddy boots”. She proved them wrong. 

Describe your job

As a director in WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff’s development business, I oversee and manage key client relationships and major contracts. I am a chartered engineer focusing on transport planning issues.

I’m an active member of our Women in Leadership Group that promotes diversity at senior level within the consultancy as well as externally, and speak at conferences on diversity and inclusivity in business. I also mentor female colleagues encouraging them to obtain further professional qualifications and raising their profiles through networking and use of social media.

My other job is being a mum of two children – three and five years old.

What do you most look forward to on a Monday morning?

Having the day off! As I work part-time to take care of my two children, it’s my non-working day! Sadly, it is usually spent cleaning, grocery shopping and catching up on chores. Although I sometimes get a chance to help at my daughters’ school, listening to them read.

What’s the most exciting part of your day/week?

When I manage to keep up with all the emails and phone calls and still produce the outputs required of me. I most enjoy going and meeting clients and helping them see how WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff can solve their problems.

Why does your job matter so much?

People need to be able to travel, therefore they need to have a way of getting from A to B. We need to make sure we provide the infrastructure and travel choices to allow people to travel safely and efficiently.

What specific skills have you learned through the job?

I’ve learned how to be patient, and most importantly how to listen to people and how to provide and take feedback.

What stands out as the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

Going on secondment at the Somerset County Council, and helping it pull the business case together that ultimately ended up with the A303 gaining funding to look into how it can be improved. I met some really interesting people.

How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?

They generally don’t understand and think I have something to do with roadworks or traffic lights. Transport is such a sensitive issue and I tend to gloss over my role when meeting new people as I don’t want to be blamed for a controversial road improvement when there are so many excellent transport planners around.

What was your career route?

I entered the civil engineering industry via an unusual route. I initially responded to an advert in my local paper for a graduate transport planner role. I no idea what the role entailed, but the advert said people with geography degrees could apply, so I did. Almost as soon as I started working in 2000, the company enrolled me onto a two year part-time MSc course in transport planning and engineering to give me the necessary background skills I needed.

I then progressed to become a chartered engineer through the ICE in 2005. I became a director in 2010 when I took on running the national transport planning business, responsible for a team of 100 staff across eight offices. I was lucky to join a company that offered a wide range of opportunities and gave me the flexibility to work part-time to take care of my kids.

How far removed from the traditional role of the civil engineer do you think your job is?

Whilst preparing for my CEng interview, I remember colleagues telling me ”you’ll never pass, you have never worked on a construction site (you don’t have ‘muddy boots’!)”. I think the role of a civil engineer is so much more than purely building things. It’s all about leadership, communication, project management, contractual understanding and being able to effectively manage a number of tasks at the same time.

How do you see it changing in the next five years?

We, as engineers, need to get much better at positively promoting what we do. The press is always full of negative comments about roadworks causing delays, projects going overspent or schemes not delivering as promised.

It’s not surprising we struggle to attract people into the profession. There is such an opportunity now with social media for us all to promote the positives of what we do. Rather than being bored stuck in traffic jams caused by roadworks, how about some information being displayed to explain what is going on and how it is being solved?

What would you be if you weren’t in this role?

Who knows! I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just landed on my feet joining WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff all those years ago and I have loved it ever since!

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