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Diary of a Civil Engineer

Research shows that when most teenagers think about their careers, they are more interested in what they will be doing than what they will earn. For many, the idea of an office job and being chained to a PC from nine to five fills them with dread. If that sounds like you, then chances are engineering could be the career for you. Chloe French felt exactly the same and knew she had to have a career where she could work outside. The 26 year-old and talks about her student days and life as geotechnical engineer.

September 1997

I enrolled at New College, Telford to do my A-Levels, amongst which was geology. In our first geology lesson our tutor, Anna Hyrcyszyn asked why we were here. I said: “I’m particularly interested in seismology and vulcanology.” I knew the words and was going to use them! I was off on the road to a career in geology.

December 2001

In my second year of studying a BSc in geology at Cardiff University, I became president of the Cardiff University Geological Society. Part of our work in the society was to organise guest speakers, specifically specialists from various areas of geology. This got me thinking – I knew in the third year that I was going to focus my modules towards structural and hard rock geology, but what was I going to do after that? I scoured websites and journals for jobs. I didn’t think I was ready to do a PhD and the jobs that appealed to me required experience and/or higher qualifications. So I stayed at Cardiff University to do the masters degree in applied environmental geology. I focused on the rock engineering, soil mechanics and geomorphology modules and the course involved a work placement, meaning I got some industrial experience, too.

June 2004

At the end of my work placement with WSP Environmental in Birmingham I was offered a permanent position. After a year, the commute to Birmingham from my home in Telford was exhausting me, so I moved to Scott Wilson’s Telford office, joining its geotechnical department. I had done some earthworks design at WSP, but now I began using that knowledge to develop ground models for projects all over the UK. I was soon mucking in with the geotechnical earthworks design team for the Trent Valley Quadrupling (TV4) rail project. The railway needed to be expanded from two tracks to four as part of the massive West Coast Route Modernisation Scheme, upgrading the rail line all the way from London to Glasgow, via Birmingham and manchester!

I started out working with cross-sections showing the existing railways earthworks, the proposed earthworks and the railway boundaries. Sometimes, the additional embankment or cutting would fi t within the boundary as per the design, but other times it did not…so we had to design something that did. Not only did I work on TV4, and many other jobs, but I began my project management experience on a small job in Wednesbury. This is an area that’s famous for its industrial heritage, including mining. This made the important desk study stage of the ground investigation design all the more crucial.

July 2005

Through graduate development courses I realised there was a lot going on that I didn’t know about. So, in my yearly review I made it known that should any short-term overseas opportunities arise I would be interested. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Sakhalin Island in Russian Federation, just off the far end of Siberia! The project involved the construction of two parallel pipelines, one carrying oil, the other gas from offshore platforms. The pipelines will carry the oil and gas to the southern tip of the island to a sea-ice-free location where it can be exported all year round.

September 2007

Short term, they said, and two years on and I am still traveling to Sakhalin and having a ball! In the UK I have continued my involvement in road, railways and development projects, expanding both my technical and project management experience. In Sakhalin I have applied the geomorphological skills learnt from my masters degree course and have spent most of my time looking for landslides, mapping and assessing them and logging the rock and soils within them. Communication is key to my work. For example, if I see unstable material in the trenches excavated for the pipelines, I have to quickly report what I see and explain why it is an issue. Then a rapid solution can be fi gured out. If I can’t explain why it is a problem, how will the construction team know how best to resolve it?

The Future

My work in Sakhalin triggered me to go back to my A-Level college and talk to my geology tutor. I then started talking to A-level students about how I got to where I am and some of the options open to them. This expanded and I became a guest speaker for their applied geology module, too. I’m not sure how long I can continue to do the A-Level talks, I’m creaking passed 26 years, so soon there will need to be more young geologists and engineers to do something new and interesting to get people like you enthusiastic about our industry. There is a great deal going on in the engineering industry at all levels, all over the world. I’m having an amazing time and hope to continue pulling my boots on and hiking over hills in remote places for a long time to come.

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