From the roads, railways and tunnels we use to travel, to the foundations of the buildings we inhabit, geotechnical engineering is all around us. It may not be obvious to the naked eye or the general public, but all of the infrastructure within our built environment relies on an understanding of this branch of science to explain the mechanics of the soil and rock which underpins the structures that support us as we go about our daily lives.
Playing a critical role in mitigating risk to people, budgets and project timelines for construction projects and asset management programmes all around the world, a career in geotechnical engineering is varied and rewarding. SOCOTEC Monitoring has real enthusiasm for the industry in which it operates, and encouraging future generations of geotechnical engineers by offering student placements is just one manifestation of this passion.
Tom Fitzsimmons, an undergraduate at the University of Portsmouth studying BEng (Hons) engineering geology and geotechnics, joined SOCOTEC Monitoring in September 2019 for a one-year placement as part of his four-year course. Below, Tom explains what attracted him to this field of study and talks about his first few months working as an assistant engineer at SOCOTEC Monitoring.
Why engineering geology and geotechnics?
I can’t say that I always intended to become an engineer. Initially, I had my heart set on being a doctor, which explains my choice of A-levels, which were biology, geography and psychology, with an AS-level in chemistry. However, I’ve always been interested in construction and the methodical approach to solving engineering problems, which I think evolved from working for my father’s construction business from a young age. Although the projects were small to medium scale, the processes involved in delivering them intrigued me.
I chose the engineering geology and geotechnics degree as it offers the opportunity to combine aspects of my geography A-level with solving engineering problems, focusing on how the ground interacts with infrastructure.
What attracted you to the placement at SOCOTEC Monitoring?
As part of my degree, I was given the opportunity to undertake a one-year industrial placement, which I thought was amazing, as often university graduates struggle to find employment after completing their studies due to having no on-the-job experience.
I came across a job advertisement for an assistant engineer at SOCOTEC Monitoring, which was suitable for a student placement. After researching what the role would entail, I found that the company’s core offering is geotechnical and structural monitoring. This is an area which is very much related to my degree, but it isn’t covered in the course syllabus. I thought that gaining first-hand experience of working in geotechnics would aid my general understanding, allow me to gain insight into this specialism and really support my studies.
What have you been working on since joining SOCOTEC Monitoring?
I immediately became part of the team at SOCOTEC Monitoring and, despite only being here a few months, I have already had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects.
Supervised by my line manager and the operations director, I have been involved in developing risk assessments and method statements, as well as planning works for the projects and liaising directly with clients and contractors. I have visited a number of sites in Essex and Marylebone, and helped to collect inclinometer data from boreholes at a site in Hailsham. I have also helped install instrumentation such as strain gauges, vibration monitors and dust monitors at various sites.
Engineering is a practical subject, it’s not just about sitting at a computer. I was pleased to discover that my role at SOCOTEC Monitoring would immediately involve plenty of hands-on experience, equipping me with skills I can put into practice in the real world.
What has surprised you about the assistant engineer role?
One of the main things that has surprised me is the variety of work. After just six weeks, I have been lucky enough to work on a wide spectrum of jobs, which has enabled me to learn so much in such a short period of time. I like the balance between office and site work, which is split approximately 60/40. Additionally, I’m really enjoying the interaction with colleagues, contractors and clients, and working in teams to solve actual problems.
My placement has already given me insight into how SOCOTEC Monitoring operates as a business and how the data gathered via the monitoring systems we design and install helps our clients make critical decisions about their construction and asset management projects.
How do you feel the placement will help you in your future career?
In many industries, especially engineering and construction, time on site and hands-on experience is highly sought after by employers. My time at SOCOTEC Monitoring is providing me with invaluable experiences and opportunities which will really help to accelerate my career progression following graduation. I already have an idea of the systems of work and a greater understanding of what is required of me in this kind of working environment, which will bolster my academic learning.
In addition, I have gained my CSCS (Construction Skills and Certification Scheme) card to allow me access to sites. In order to gain access to London Underground and Network Rail sites, I also worked towards gaining a Sentinel card by passing the ICI (Industry Common Induction) test. Achieving these additional certifications is fantastic experience and will look great on my CV.
What are you aspiring to after your placement?
After my placement I will be heading back to Portsmouth for my final year at university, where I am hoping to obtain a first-class honours degree. I will use data sets I have collected from a live SOCOTEC Monitoring project, and the knowledge gained from practical applications of monitoring, in my dissertation.
After my final year at university, I can see myself moving abroad for a few years, preferably to Australia, where I would like to continue to work in geotechnical engineering.
If you want to know more about similar opportunities and careers within the SOCOTEC Group, please visit the SOCOTEC careers page.
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