Engineering: Pack your bag and learn a trade

The global economy needs future engineers to be skilled, flexible – and mobile. By Stephen Hoare

Submarine systems engineer Ellis Harkins joined Cable & Wireless Worldwide’s graduate scheme in 2009. Since joining the international telecoms group, Ellis’ tours of duty have included Panama, Peru, Jamaica, Israel, Monte Carlo and Cornwall. Submarine cable engineers are responsible for making sure fibre-optic cables laid on the sea bed are maintained in top-notch condition.

Engineering is a highly mobile profession. In-fields such as civil engineering, mechanical installations, oil and gas exploration, and telecommunications are global in reach. The kind of postgraduates such businesses recruit will have acquired knowledge and skill sets at university that make them highly employable.

The University of Surrey puts employability at the heart of its postgraduate agenda and in 2010 topped the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s tables, with 96.9 per cent of its graduates employed within six months of completing their studies. “No company can flourish unless it can recruit engineers with the right skill sets, the right mentality and a solid research background.

We give our postgraduates the ability to become part of a multidisciplinary team and create a holistic view,” says Ravi Silva, director of the university’s Advanced Technology Institute. A professor of solid-state electronics, Silva believes that involving employers in designing the syllabus and sponsoring research is vital for job creation.

Companies such as Intel, Samsung, Motorola and BAE Systems sit on an advisory board to ensure postgraduates have the right skill sets, including communication and leadership.

“We are developing new methods and processes that allow the UK electronics industry to keep pace with worldwide trends,” says Silva. Surrey’s vice chancellor Chris Snowden is himself an electronics engineer and former CEO of the FTSE 100 company Filtronic.

But universities can only do so much. Employers pride themselves on graduate schemes that pave the way for engineers to become well-rounded professionals, prepared to work overseas on a project-by-project basis at the same time as collecting an evidence base to support their application to become a fully-fledged chartered engineer.

In partnership with the Institute of Engineering Technology (IET), Cable & Wireless Worldwide operates a two-year grad scheme that enrolls engineers with the company as members of the IET to undertake four six-month technical placements, including at least one overseas posting. Any high potentials will also attend technical, business and competency training courses at Cable & Wireless’ headquarters in Bracknell.

At the end of the scheme, individuals decide where their career ladder will begin and choose from sales, operations or one of the group’s telecoms network design teams.

Eirini Koukaki graduated from Imperial College with an MSc in physics, optics and photonics in 2009 and is half way through Cable & Wireless’ graduate scheme. Her research focused on extending the capacity of fibre-optic networks by increasing the number of wavelengths that can be accommodated within a single strand of optical fibre.

Her career development is building her commercial experience. “My first placement was in international network planning, and my second was in international carrier buying, purchasing fibre-optic capacity from other telecomms companies in Europe to extend Cable & Wireless’ reach. My next will probably be in Singapore, where the company has a big operation and there are many opportunities,” says Koukaki.

So how did her MSc prepare her for the commercial world? “I think Cable & Wireless appreciated the fact I’d done a Masters degree at a good university and carried out research into photonics, a field that they were very interested in developing. The company pays for my membership of the IET and I’m aiming to reach chartered engineer status in five years,” says Koukaki.

Cable & Wireless recruits around six engineering graduates a year, with a mix of Masters and undergraduate degrees in specific areas such as telecommunications, mechanical engineering and photonics. Graduate recruitment manager Kirsty Huntington believes that a Masters degree adds significant value. “If individuals come to us with a Masters there is less evidential work needed on their pathway to becoming a chartered engineer,” she says.

Flexibility and mobility are key to making a successful career says chemical engineering graduate Pippa Cook, who works at BP’s Wytch Farm onshore oil exploration business near Poole, on the Dorset coast. Graduating with an MSc from the University of Birmingham, Cook was headhunted by BP after successfully completing a summer internship with the company between her second and third year of study.

BP’s graduate scheme lasts for three years, during which recruits spend a year at each placement, getting to know the business. “I’ve spent a year as a flow assessment engineer within BP’s pipelines team, and another year working on the detailed design for an onshore terminal in Azerbaijan. In my third year, I went out to Baku in Azerbaijan as a junior project manager at a yard where they were fabricating an offshore drilling and oil-processing platform. I got to see a platform being built,” says Cook.

Trained in soft skills such as communication and effective presentation, Cook says her most valuable people skills were acquired on the job, however.

After finishing her work in Baku, Cook’s first full-time posting with BP was as a process engineer for the North Sea Bruce platform, based in Aberdeen. She spent the next three years working on a sub-sea tieback from the Rhum gas field to the Bruce platform.

Cook says that willingness to travel is seen as part of an engineer’s job and as the best way of gaining a wealth of experience early in your career. For older employees, an overseas posting is seen as a bigger lifestyle choice, with a stable position offering the chance to start a family.

Electronics engineer Tania Campbell agrees. After working as an antenna engineer, designing and building masts for mobile phone company Nortel, her employer arranged a long-term posting to Germany. “I speak fluent German and Dutch, so for me this was a very exciting move,” says Campbell.”

My husband then came out to join me and we were able to start a family when I landed a desk job as a patent engineer in Munich. I now work part-time.”

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