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Working lives

Cliff Billington, 55, is chief engineer of, specialist precast supplier Trent Concrete.

Route to the job:I was born into concrete, my father and his father having been in the business. My early route was the then traditional one of ONC, HNC and SCET. At that time, I had no thoughts of becoming chartered, since I did not have a degree. After spells in local government and consultancy I was invited to join Richard Lees. Apart from the hollow core flooring aspects, I became greatly involved in the development of Holorib metal decking, jointly writing the muchneeded standard for it - BS5950:

Pt 4. During this time, I also did an OU degree in maths and materials, as well as teaching structures at ONC level.

After 12 years with Richard Lees, I left to become technical manager at Blatcon Precast and then Breton Precast for seven years until the slump in the early 1990s brought two years of unemployment and short term positions.

Expectations:

When the position at Trent Concrete became available, I grabbed the chance to get back into what I was used to. I had to some extent already established myself in the precast industry, so my expectations were more of continuation in my chosen field rather than a drastic change of career.

Reality:

I knew that Trent was in the field of architectural cladding rather than the grey structural stuff I was used to. What I didn't know was that it was also leader in the unusual or untried aspects of precast. Every day still brings fresh challenges, requiring original and innovative thinking. Even with the cladding products, the immense diversity of size, shape and means of connection dictates that each job is unique. Since there are no suitable software packages, most designs have to be done either by hand or by programs written inhouse. Either way, it results in a totally 'hands-on' approach to work. The non-cladding products are even more unpredictable. My recent projects have included the free standing sway frame supporting the roof of Paddington station, the first use of large composite concrete sandwich panels. On the basis that you are never too old to learn, Trent's recent development of GRC has meant understanding a whole new set of rules, largely uncodified.

Five years ago, it was suggested that I ought to be chartered. I had to take the mature candidate route, and was pleasantly surprised to be admitted to full membership of ICE. Having by now become one of the elder statesmen of precast, I have been fortunate and honoured enough to be asked to jointly produce the cladding standard BS 8297, as well as being the UK representative on the equivalent Eurocode committee. This has led to travel to Europe and the US, where different methods and standards can be studied and learned from.

Advice:

If you find a field you like, specialist industry such as precast concrete can offer a career with neverending opportunities and challenges. Cladding, in particular, is very satisfying since it is up there on show for all to see, and I still get a buzz when one of 'my projects' wins an award. A word of warning though: as a specialist you are often expected to know it all, and to fall into the trap of believing that to be true is to be avoided at all costs. After nearly 30 years I am still learning, and that is one of the best aspects of my career.

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