They’re installing cameras that measure traffic speed and watch out for accidents and hazards, or information boards that let you know when there’s a jam. They’re also planning the road network and improving the road surface you travel on – engineers are helping us have a smooth ride.
Philippa tells us how engineers are responsible for improving everything that surrounds us. We also find out how she’s not only at home on roads, but also in boats!
Name: Philippa Jefferis
Job title: Assistant Project Manager
Company: Amey, Consulting Railways and Strategic Highways division
University studies: MEng (Hons) Civil Engineering with Industrial Experience, Birmingham University
A-level studies: Maths, physics, economics
AS-level studies: Chemistry, critical thinking
GCSEs: biology, geography, history, ICT, chemistry, English literature, English language, maths, physics, French
Follow Philippa on Twitter: @PJefferis
What do you do?
I’m a civil engineer currently working as an assistant project manager. I’m based in Cardiff for the Welsh Transport Consultancy, which is like the Highways Agency for Wales. We’re maintaining and improving the road network across Wales as well as keeping an eye on all the traffic in the area to make sure people are safe.
I’m on a two-year graduate scheme at Amey where I will move around the country to a different placement every six months. Engineering is so varied and there’s a lot to learn so I wanted to get a job where I could get that experience and learn at different places in different management roles.
How does your work affect people’s lives and the world around us?
My work has a direct impact on everyone using the road network in Wales. We’re monitoring the road traffic, journey times and whether there are any problems, such as an accident. We’re giving people information, helping them get where they want to go and improving their journey.
The engineering here includes the road infrastructure. We’re making sure the road network is smooth and running because no-one likes to drive over potholes. There's also the integrated technology side because roads are becoming increasingly intelligent. You don’t notice it but underneath the road there will be monitoring systems that sense when a car has driven over so we can tell how many cars have passed one place. We can feed that back to road signs, so as you drive along a road you can see information about the traffic conditions.
I’m working in one of two control rooms owned by the Welsh government with CCTV images displayed on the large screen behind me (see photo above - Ed). Another project I’m working on at the moment is improving the images available to people, so we’re upgrading the cameras and journey-time cameras (which measure driver speed between points) and I help install them on site.
How else are engineers involved in transport?
When your parents drive you along the road, you possibly don’t realise that this simple journey involves lots of engineering! There’s an engineer involved in everything you do. As well as the engineering that I do, you’ve also got the car itself, which was designed by a mechanical engineer, and the petrol that it runs on was produced by a chemical engineer.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
My dad had been an engineer and I was determined not to follow in his footsteps. But then I started looking at the things I enjoyed at school like problem-solving and working out how to improve things. The more I looked into what I enjoyed, the more I realised I was already an engineer!
An engineer has an impact on everyone’s daily lives and I really wanted to be involved in that. You can’t get out of bed in the morning without coming across an engineer in one way or another. It’s not that they’re hiding in your house, but they’re involved in everything you do! Turn on the tap to brush your teeth in the morning - engineers have designed and developed systems that clean water and pump it to your home. To get to school you drove in a car designed by a mechanical engineer, on a road designed by a civil engineer.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
I think the best things about my job are the variety and the challenge. Something could come up which isn’t anything I could have planned for and it’s a challenge to work hard at and solve.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
You can’t be a hero in engineering. No one will notice if you’re doing the right thing. If anything, you get job satisfaction from the fact that if people haven’t noticed you’re doing it, then you’re doing the right thing. You should be improving people’s lives to a point where it’s so natural to them that they don’t realise anything has happened.
How did you get into engineering?
I studied maths, physics and economics at A-level and took a four year Masters degree in civil engineering. I chose a university degree programme because it was a very intense four years and it got me up to speed in engineering in a quick way. I was learning a lot and during the summers I was working for engineering companies so I could put what I learned at university into real-life experience.
How important are maths and science for engineering?
They’re really important as it will be hard to get onto a degree programme without maths and science at A-level. However, it’s very difficult to realise why they'll be so important when you’re at school. Maths and science make more sense as tools to help solve a problem, which is what they're used for in engineering.
Why should young people consider a career in engineering?
It’s a chance to get involved in a whole range of projects. You haven’t closed any doors by following engineering and you’ve got a chance to find out what’s going on in the world. Civil engineers like me can get involved in anything from water treatment works, to road management, to flood defence schemes and more. Mechanical engineers can be involved in Formula One racing, robotics and much more, all through following a career in engineering.
There are fewer women working in engineering than men. What would you say to girls who might be interested in a career in engineering?
There’s nothing to stop girls going into engineering. They have every ability and skill that boys have, so I can’t understand why there aren’t more girls in engineering. It’s a great job and if you enjoy problem solving, working out complex systems and the satisfaction of finding a solution to a problem then I’d encourage you to give it a try.
What personal qualities are important to be an engineer?
I think an engineer is someone who enjoys working towards a logical end goal, using a step-by-step method to solve a problem. They also have to be slightly creative because there’s not a set solution to everything. Sometimes you need to think “outside the box”.
What would be your dream job in engineering?
My real engineering passion is railways and I’d eventually like to be involved in that as transport around the country is so crucial. It’s important that we’re using engineering to make the most of the existing railway infrastructure and also improving it for quicker journey times so people feel they can rely on a sustainable transport network.
We’ve got a history of engineering and railways in this country, with Brunel, Stephenson and the great Victorian age of rail. It would be brilliant to make the railways new and innovative again.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I tend to go sailing at weekends. It’s amazing how many sailors are engineers, especially the ones that enjoy changing their boats and adapting them to make them go faster. I really enjoy going out and letting my hair down in the fresh air and going at silly speeds in a floating device.
I’m also involved with an international development charity called Engineers Without Borders. I got involved at university and it’s given me a perspective on the world that I didn’t have before. Some people are living without the luxuries we are so lucky to enjoy in the UK and small scale engineering projects can make a huge difference to people’s lives. For example, we can put a well and water treatment system in a village so people don’t have to walk miles to get water and that’s a drastic improvement.