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Breaking barriers: how one young civil engineer has beaten the odds

A job in civils is a seemingly impossible task for some youngsters, says one newly qualified engineer.

Economic uncertainty and rising tuition fees mean that it is getting harder for school leavers to become civil engineers.

Twenty four year-old Michael Wedderburn has bucked the trend. Currently working for contractor Interserve, Wedderburn has defied the current challenging climate to succeed as a newly-minted graduate civil engineer.

Hailing from Erdington in Birmingham, Wedderburn comes from what he describes as a working class background. Excelling at school, he studied maths, physics and music before gaining a place on the civil engineering course at the University of Birmingham.

Parental support

He attributes his success to the support of his Carribbean-born parents, both for giving him “a really strong work ethic” and “for pushing me hard.

“It was largely thanks to my parent’s encouragement that I got to university,” he says.

He chose civil engineering as he was excited at the prospect of international travel. While studying, he did 18 months of work placements with Interserve, who helped with his accommodation and fuel costs.

His placements included work on the £55M Rowley Regis campus project, and time at Interserve’s head offices.

“It is critical for the future of civil engineering that companies can attract such talented young people”

Mike Wade, Interserve technical manager

 

Such work placements were vital to his civils education. “At the time you couldn’t tell the difference between placement people like me and the staff. The placement students were given real responsibilities, not just the worst jobs to do,” says Wedderburn.

He has recently become an ICE graduate member and is working for Interserve on its £77M Sandwell College project near Birmingham, managing a variety of works packages.

Interserve technical manager Mike Wade says of Wedderburn, “he is an outstanding example of the type of graduate recruit that Interserve looks for.

“His drive and enthusiasm have enabled Michael to grab every opportunity with both hands.”

Company responsibilities

Wade warns that companies must be prepared to look after their young if they are to continue to create success stories such as Wedderburn’s. “It is critical for the future of civil engineering that companies can not only attract such talented young people, but also ensure that the right opportunities are provided at the right time.”

Wedderburn has ambitious plans for his future. He has recently been selected for a leadership programme run by the Association of Corporate Governance Practitioners, which has been set up to help develop a new generation of board members.

He is also determined that more young people from working class backgrounds receive the opportunities he has. He is currently working on a project called ‘Breaking Barriers’, which aims to get children from inner city state schools in Birmingham into careers like civil engineering.

“These children have low aspirations because they don’t have the encouragement to realise their potential,” he says.

“By 16 they aren’t going on to sixth form, despite achieving As and Bs, because they don’t realise the importance of getting A Levels and going to university. 

Breaking the cycle

“Their low aspirations come from living in an area of high unemployment where many children don’t know anyone who has succeeded. If they can’t see what they can be, how can they break the cycle?”

“Civil engineering as an industry is generally misunderstood within the UK,” he continues.

“If you ask many people what a civil engineer is or what civil engineering is as an industry, from my experience a third will know, a third will have a partial knowledge and a third will have no idea as to what it is.

“Generally individuals from less privileged backgrounds do not come into contact with civil engineers often, if at all ever. It is down to the industry and us as civil engineering professional to increase the awareness of the industry.”

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