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Working lives

YOUR CAREER: Paul Ashton, 31, is a senior engineer with WS Atkins' US subsidiary Atkins Benham

Route to the job

After finishing my O Levels in 1986, I joined Northern Structural Services as a trainee engineering technician, where I worked for six years, predominately designing building structures. After gaining an HNC in civil engineering I realised I needed a degree to advance my career.

I graduated from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1995 and joined Donaldson Associates as a graduate engineer, where I was involved in the design of tunnelling projects in the UK and mainland Europe.

One of my early ambitions had been to work overseas, and in 1996 I joined Binnie Black & Veatch (BBV) as an assistant engineer based in Hong Kong. In 1999 I became chartered and was promoted to engineer. During five exhilarating years with BBV, I was involved in the planning, design, management and site supervision of large-scale civil/structural engineering projects in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).

The slowdown of the construction market in Asia and the economic growth in Ireland prompted me to join Mott MacDonald in Dublin as a senior engineer, working on major infrastructure projects.These included the refurbishment of Ha'penny Bridge and the Kilkenny Flood Alleviation Scheme.

In April this year, I was offered the chance to join WS Atkins as senior engineer in one of its US offices.

Expectations

With UK/US mergers on the increase, I recognised the potential for working in the US, and that it would give me a chance to learn how projects are bid, marketed and managed from an American perspective.

A major drawback for UK engineers, however, is that there is no US recognition for equivalent UK qualifications. In some states UK chartered engineers are exempt from the FE examination, but no allowances are made for the Professional Engineer (PE) examination. Consequently, I knew that a considerable amount of extra-curricular study would be required to sit for the PE exam - and there is!

The reality

While I have only been in the job for a short time, I have already been involved in the design of a number of bridges which formed part of Oklahoma's £625M highway construction programme.

Designing to different codes and standards using imperial units has meant a steep, but rewarding, learning curve.

As for the future, I am pursuing an MBA by distance learning, which I hope will enable me to progress from project management into business management, particularly overseeing international operations.

Advice

I remember that my decision to return to full time education after six years in employment was a difficult one from a financial point of view, but retrospectively, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My advice to all those technicians out there who are thinking about studying for a degree is to go for it.

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