Sunday, 10 March 2019

How To Become A Highway Engineer

It's an interesting question for me because I didn't plan to become a highway engineer, it sort of happened; but, for what it's worth, here's how I did it because there are so many different paths you could take.

Thanks to Savage Houtkop for asking;

My journey started back in school where my favourite subjects were geography and craft, design and technology (CDT). Being the second year of GCSE, there was lots of coursework which suited my learning style of research, thinking and practical work. I did OK at GCSE overall and I had an idea that I wanted to design cars - the product design and technical drawing aspect of CDT was part of the reasoning.

I went on to A-levels to study maths and physics because that what aspiring engineers did; I also continued my love of geography to A-level. Things didn't go well and I only passed geography and got an 'N' or 'near pass'. I found the maths at A-level too abstract and I probably only did as 'well' as I did in physics because of the practical aspects.

I was at a crossroads. I wanted to carry on studying, but the mechanical engineering courses I was thinking about during A-levels suddenly became a remote possibility because of the maths and physics issue. Luckily, Hatfield Polytechnic came to the rescue. They were offering a higher national diploma (HND) in civil engineering studies and I had enough GCSEs and my A-level to get onto the course.

The HND was brilliant because there was so much practical application through the learning. Casting and smashing concrete cubes in the structures lab, setting out roads on the field behind the college, comparing drainage theory with reality in the hydraulics lab and so on. In short, we were directly applying the theory, undertaking research and learning ourselves, working in groups on practical problems and seeing how the built environment fitted together. 

I did well enough on the HND to be admitted into the second year of the civil engineering degree at what had become the University of Hertfordshire. I was admitted with quite a few of my classmates from the HND which kept the group ethos of problem solving intact. The degree was undoubtedly harder because there was a great deal more theory and the maths and physics came back to haunt me. I did OK and finished with a second class honours - bachelor of engineering to be precise.

I was now 1995 and I was in the real world and needing to get a job. Luckily for me, I had been studying during recession, but the economy had improved and through a recruitment agency I got a job as a site engineer with a telecoms contractor. The pay was awful and the hours were long. I was assigned a handful of works gangs who laid ducting for cables in the highway, built jointing chambers, bases for cabinets and other associated work. I had to make sure the work was being undertaken safely and to the contract standards as well as measuring up was was built (for invoicing).

However, there was camaraderie with colleagues (all young site engineers) and the gangs with a joint purpose of trying to get the job done. I was trained as a streetworks supervisor, learnt from those doing the hard work and there were highlights such as the site engineers regularly driving in convoy to a local cafe for the weekly fry-up and moan about the job.

I kept my eyes open and by the end of my first year with the contractor, I had secured a job as an assistant engineer with a highway authority where I would be dealing with maintenance work - mainly footway reconstruction and carriageway resurfacing. I learnt a fair bit about highway construction and materials as the highways manager was always keen to try out new methods and practices. I got involved with in-situ pavement recycling, different asphalt systems and a little bit of work to implement small traffic schemes. Some of my best memories were on-site with asphalt crews undertaking night time resurfacing because while busy, they were always pleased to show how all of the kit worked.

I loved the maintenance work, but I wanted to become professionally qualified and the type of work was never going to be of a scope which would get me there, although I did join the Institution of Highways & Transportation (now CIHT) as a member. I needed broader experience and I found a post as a civil engineer with a development company. The work exposed me to some heavy civil engineering design and construction work building roads, sewers, bridges, flood balancing ponds and perhaps most interesting of all, dealing with contaminated land with the possibility of unexploded ordnance! 

Again, I was fortunate to work with a great team and my boss also became my mentor as I prepared to sit my professional review with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) to be admitted as a member and a chartered engineer. Part of the professional review included an interview with two ICE members and part of the interview required me to give a short presentation on some work I had been doing which was in turn based on a written submission of the same. 

Being a practical person, I made a little laminated flip chart of photos and plans of a water treatment lagoon project which I had managed. I also may have raised a couple of eyebrows when I reached into by briefcase and took out half a dozen glass jars with coloured soils and other things in them. I explained that the bright blue streaks in the soil in one of the jars was 'Blue Billy' a particularly noxious substance and the greenish lumps in another were burnt explosives. Looking back, they probably weren't items to be carried on the Tube. I also had a jar with a section of geosynthetic clay liner which is used to waterproof lagoons and landfills, complete with a rusty nail sticking through it to demonstrate its self-sealing properties. I passed in any case.

By the autumn of 2004, my wife and I were expecting our first child and so I decided to move jobs again and found a post with another highway authority a bit closer to home. I was to be undertaking traffic and highway engineering schemes as a senior engineer. Within a year of joining, my boss quit and I went for his job as a principal engineer which meant taking on staff management responsibility and a much wider area of work including development management, bridge maintenance and all sorts of highway schemes.

The work was (and is) highly varied and interesting, but with a backdrop of politics which can be very frustrating at times. In 2011 I had an epiphany - well actually, it developed over a few months. Becoming irritated with sitting in traffic following an office move from the very edge of suburbia into a town centre, I dug out my bike from the shed and became a short-distance cycle commuter. I started to wonder why on earth people would sit in traffic for short journeys (which was previously me). I then realised that I was in a minority as someone prepared to brave mixing it with motors and I became open to the idea of changing our streets to enable people to change how they travel.

Anyone who has followed me for a while knows the more recent history. I started this blog in 2012 in order to vent my frustration and in 2017, I took some tentative steps into freelancing on the side as City Infinity which has been fun. In the last couple of years, I have become increasingly fascinated by how streets and the elements within fit together and how we can make them accessible. I have also been fortunate to meet some inspirational people who have changed my view on how our streets and urban places could work better.

The future isn't written of course and I suppose I have the fun of finding out what happens next, but I'm increasingly hoping that the future will be further away from designing cars as ever.

If you are interested in becoming a highway or civil engineer, here are a couple resources;
I think my overall message is although there are formal routes to becoming a highway or civil engineer, you don't have to follow them. We need a diverse group of people with diverse set of skills and so don't let qualifications or experience hold you back!


  1. Interesting as ever RH. Alongside highways/civil engineering is the related field of Transport Planning which is a sort of "overlap" between engineering and mainstream planning. Some transport planners work for councils (or Transport for London) and others work as consultants.

    In my TP team we have a broad range of subject backgrounds such as civil engineering, geography, management, economics. You don't necessarily need a university degree although the larger firms will often ask for one. Our equivalent of the ICE is the CIHT which offers a similar pathway for professional development.

    TP work is slightly less "hands on" than engineering, and there are computer models to automate some of the work, but you need to be able to engage with all sorts of people in councils, clients, architects, the general public...

    1. And there are engineers who become transport planners and vice versa!