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My job explained: Project manager

engineering project managerSarita Coultate trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but has left the wine-growing region of her childhood to help transform London’s transport. Here she tells us about herself and her work.

When did you decide to become an engineer?

I always thought about it when I was younger, at school, but felt like it was something girls just don’t do. So, I went to university to study physiotherapy. Luckily, I had friends who were studying engineering at the time and they said I’d love it and should consider changing courses. So after finishing that year I switched to engineering and quickly realised gender did not make any difference. Engineering has traditionally been seen as a man’s world; but times have changed and I feel women bring different skills to the profession which is good!

How long has it taken you to train?

I completed a four-year degree in South Africa and then I went travelling. For the first few years in the UK I worked in construction and learned an incredible amount on site at first helping and then managing some very exciting projects. During that time I took various courses, many of them safety related as the industry requires you to be competent and look after you own safety as well others. After that, I decided to join a formal graduate training agreement with design consultants and the Institution of Civil Engineers. I completed that at the beginning of this year and I am now working towards becoming a chartered engineer.

What did your training involve?

Successful engineers need a broad understanding so at university, we covered a range of fields including design, structures, materials, the environment, ground engineering, transport, hydraulics, management and much much more. The course was quite theoretical but we did lots of practical sessions in the labs. I chose to do my final year dissertation in transport engineering; specifically linked to schools which were lots of fun. As a student I also spent a couple of holidays with engineering consultants to gain more practical experience.

The on-the-job training I have received over the past years involved developing my technical, communication as well as project management skills and my employer’s have been very supportive. I found that experience in the softer skills has been as vital as the technical skills I’ve gained. Communication is a good example – you can be technically brilliant, but if you can’t get your ideas across and work with other people, it doesn’t mean so much. Engineering is all about team work.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I like to get in quite early to miss the rush hour and it gives me time to go through my emails before the day gets going. I spend a lot of my time in meetings – most of which I have to chair myself as I’m managing various projects.

I also use the phone and email a lot, as I try to coordinate different people and activities. Finally, I still get to spend some time on site itself, making sure everything is going to plan. So there’s lots of variety in my day.

What do you like best about your job?

It’s wonderful being part of something permanent, it is such a great feeling walking past something you’ve helped to create in a team. I worked on the new Western ticket hall at Kings Cross St. Pancras station that recently opened to the public. It was hard work, but look at it now!

What I love about my work are the people. You’re in touch with a wide and diverse network and I have made a lot of good friends. I was trained as a Civil Engineer but I work with people from lots of different backgrounds– electrical, mechanical, communications, local authorities, police, train operators, media etc…it’s definitely not a lonely job.

Another bonus is the fact that you can work almost anywhere in the world so it’s a wonderful way to see other countries and experience different cultures. There are plenty of opportunities around; we will always need great engineers.

Any downsides?

A lot of pressure at times and you’re always busy. But I prefer that – I hate being bored!

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

There are different roles you can play as an engineer; so there are lots of different skills you can apply. Leadership skills are important; you have to be good at listening, a strong communicator and good at thinking ahead.

Having scientific talents and being artistic are key skills you apply to engineering. You don’t need be a maths fanatic, it is important but lots of the other qualities are just as important. The most successful engineers are enthusiastic, imaginative problem solvers.

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

Expect lots of hard work but it’s very rewarding and definitely worth it!!

What impact do you think engineers have on society?

Every aspect of modern life has had an engineer’s input….the houses we live in, the roads we drive on, the stadiums we watch sport in etc. Civil engineers are the custodians of the built and natural environment – its really motivating to know I have a massive opportunity to improve people’s lives.