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Rescue and development work

Major disasters, from the Indian Ocean tsunami and floods in Bangladesh to the New Orleans hurricane and the Kashmir earthquake, underline just how important the role of the engineer can be in helping people whose lives have been wiped out.
In immediate terms the civil engineer can help survivors stay alive in conditions where they may no longer have even the basics of shelter, water, food or sanitation. Work to re-establish roads and other communication links will often be vital just to get rescue crews and medical aid through to the scene.

Immediately following a calamity, organisations like the major international charities have staff engineers to assess and direct these tasks, supplemented by volunteers. The Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief, or RedR-IHE, is one of the main co-ordinators for this. RedR-IHE keeps a list of people willing to drop everything and go off for anywhere between a few weeks to six months or more to do the work.

Longer term, the rebuilding of infrastructure and redevelopment of areas will be equally important, and the engineer is, again, central to the efforts to re-establish communities, working with or for international non-governmental organisations.

This work is closely connected to the development of poorer countries and economies in the developing world that are missing many of the basics of modern life including, for many hundreds of millions, even clean water supply or adequate sanitation. Even where there has been no "disaster", multitudes of people are in desperate need of simple engineering, such as creating a village water point or making a forest road. Creating transport links can transform existence by bringing trade and providing access to medicine and education.

"The civil engineers of the 19th century in the UK were the 'unsung doctors' who transformed health and living conditions," points out consultant Julian Carter, an engineer who has spent much of his time on rescue and development work abroad.

But Carter advises: if you are going to help you need to be trained. "The key word is balance in doing these things. Yes, you can drop everything and go and do Voluntary Service Overseas – and I did – but you will be more useful if you can offer professional skills."

Above all become a chartered engineer through one of the professional institutions, he says. Carter regrets that he put this off for too long while working on voluntary projects.

"The engineering is important, but so too are the management and organisation skills that you learn in engineering," he says.

"And just as vital is to learn how to communicate. Join local groups, such as the Rotarians, or work on local schools programmes. And I recommend learning sign language – in many countries you will not have the language, yet talking to people is crucial."

These skills are also important in building personal strength, he says. Being in a disaster zone on your own can be physically and emotionally exhausting, however motivated you are, he warns.

HAVE INFLUENCE IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Making a lasting contribution to your home town can be a rewarding aspect of choosing to work in local government. Wherever you are, there will be a council near you keen to find an outlet for your skills.

Civil engineering graduates have the chance to influence the appearance, environment and infrastructure of an area by working for a local authority.

John Sanders worked as a municipal engineer for Essex County Council. "I can go to any part of Essex and say 'that was me, I was involved in that'," he says. "The best thing about working for a local authority, where it has a real advantage over other employment, is that you are the client and you make the decision. You decide what should and shouldn't be done."

Projects undertaken by local authorities can make a significant impact on people's lives. Improving an area's transport infrastructure can provide a crucial lifeline for people otherwise unable to get to jobs, shops, medical or leisure facilities. Waste treatment and recyling is also high on the national agenda, and generates a lot of local interest.

Involvement in these projects is particularly satisfying for engineers working for councils because they see them through from the earliest stages.

Whereas consultants work on one piece and hand over control, local authority officers are responsible for identifying a need, planning the solution, obtaining the funding, designing the measures, implementing the new system and educating people in how to use it.

Local authorities are renowned for their excellent pension packages; starting salaries can be attractive and working hours are often less demanding than in the private sector. Perceptions that local authorities are less than dynamic organisations are outdated. Officers have to be able to react to new government legislation and an often fast-changing local political environment.

One element not to be overlooked, however, is the need to work closely with politicians, whose agenda may not always be the same as yours.

However, Sanders says: "You can't be afraid of the political arena. You have to enjoy it. It's influencing society and doing things for society, and that's where the greatest kick comes."


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