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My job explained: Structural engineer

structural engineering bridgeKatie Symons talks proudly about her job. Read on to find out why aid agencies reckon one engineer to be worth ten doctors during a natural disaster.

When did you decide to become an engineer?

I decided to do an engineering degree when I was in the sixth form. I knew that employers from all industries employ people with an engineering background, so it seemed like a good choice.

Was there anything or anyone in particular that inspired you?

My boss inspires me. He is a brilliant engineer at the same time as being aware of the architectural purpose of each building he works on. He can ‘scheme’ a building’s structure in minutes and produces hand drawn sketches that illustrate his designs clearly enough for anyone to understand.

What did the training involve?

I did a four-year degree at Cambridge, where they run a general course. I enjoyed it, as I could cope with the maths (just!) and I liked learning about all the different types of engineering before I specialised in structures.

My on-the-job training consists of doing everyday structural engineering supervised by senior engineers. Whitbybird (where I work) has a training scheme that involves attendance at day long courses where I learn about more ‘soft’ aspects of my job, like communication skills, management and financial systems.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I’m mainly office based, with my own computer. Lots of my structural design work is done by hand, using pencil, paper and calculators as well as sketching paper to come up with structural elements that will work. However, I use computer programmes to help speed up the process, and model more complex, or very large structures.

Lots of my job is working with the design team for my projects, normally made up of the architect, the mechanical & electrical engineer (who sort out the drainage, water, power, ventilation systems for a building) and any other people who give specialist input.

What's the best thing about your job?

Working as part of a team to get a building designed and built, and then going past it when it’s finished and thinking ‘I did that’.

Any downsides?

There can be lots of paperwork with a big project, which gets a bit boring and is sometimes a distraction from what you really want to be doing: getting on with designing.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are now?

Being a female in a male dominated environment can be difficult, but it has it’s advantages too. In meetings it is rare for people to forget my name! I have faced little if any prejudice being female and feel that once I have proved my worth to my colleagues I am treated with the respect I deserve.

What skills or qualities do you think are important for your role?

Patience, the ability to prioritise tasks (as you always have too many things to do at the same time!) and the ability to work in a team and recognise everyone’s contributions.

What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?

Make really good notes in your lectures, because they’ll be much more useful when you refer back to them when you start work and have forgotten it all.

What impact do engineers have on society?

Most people think of medicine as being the most humane profession, but it is not so well known that engineers save many more lives. Foreign aid agencies recommend one engineer is worth ten doctors in terms of relief after a natural disaster or outbreak of war: you only have to imagine what our cities would be like without the drainage systems we take for granted every time we flush the loo to work out why.

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