Career paths: Michelle Hicks, WSP

Michelle Hicks is a graduate engineer with consultant WSP Group which also sponsored her studies throughout university.

Michelle Hicks, graduate engineer WSP Group

What made you choose a career in engineering and infrastructure?

This question normally provokes accounts of a childhood playing with Mechano and Lego leading to an interest in engineering… But I was quite the opposite and had no idea what I wanted to do until I started looking at potential degrees. An inspirational talk when I visited the University of Surrey confirmed that civil engineering was the perfect industry for me and would allow me to make best use of my skills and strengths to improve the built environment.

What did you study? How did that lead to this career?

I completed A Levels in Double Maths, Physics and Geography purely because I enjoyed these subjects the most. A degree in maths was on the cards for a while but I always found it more interesting to apply these principles to real mechanics problems. Realising that a degree in maths or physics may be too theoretical for me, I went down the engineering route and haven’t looked back since!

Who was your first employer and why?

My first employer (excluding weekends on the checkouts in the local supermarket!) was WSP and I am still working for them five years down the line. I was sponsored by WSP for the duration of my degree through the ICE Scholarship in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Surrey. At this stage of my career it was important for me to be able to work on a broad range of projects so I could gain as much experience as possible. WSP provided the perfect opportunity to do this and have since helped me to gain the experience I need in order to start progressing towards Chartership.

Did you have a career plan? How has reality panned out against that plan?

When I started studying engineering my biggest interest was in bridge design, but as I learnt more about civil engineering, the more I became interested in other areas of the industry. So far I’ve had the chance to work on bridge, rail and building projects, all of which have provided unique challenges. No project is ever the same and I think that’s part of what makes civil engineering such an enjoyable and rewarding career.

Why did you join WSP when you graduated?

In between my University studies I worked with WSP during my summers and for a placement year in the middle of my degree. I really enjoyed working for the company and learnt a lot during this time. These placements also gave me time to build up a network within the company, making the transition from student to graduate easier. WSP also have training schemes accredited by the ICE and IStructE and actively encourage graduates to work towards Chartership.

Who has had the most influence over your career and why?

I’ve been very lucky to have some great mentors over my career so far, both from within WSP and from other organisations. The advice I’ve received has helped me make informed decisions about my career and how to make the most from my experience, even if it’s just a casual chat over coffee.

What about work gets you interested, keeps you interested?

There’s always so much to learn! No matter how long you’ve been in the profession, there will always be new developments both within and external to the industry and we must adapt to these changes. This continual learning process means you can never become complacent and must take an active approach to meet the demands of the industry. The same can be said about the projects I’ve worked on. Whilst the learning curve is often steep, I am always interested to learn more and have no doubt this will continue throughout my career.

What can employers offer to make you most happy in your career?

I think the most important thing is to provide opportunities to develop technical understanding and commercial awareness. Both are important for engineers so will help lead to career progression and increased responsibility. This may be through training or project experience as long as it allows you to see as many sides of the industry as possible. Only with this broad view will young engineers fully understand the industry and the integration of various disciplines within engineering projects.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t doubt yourself if you think something is wrong or can be improved. Sometimes it is difficult when you are the least experienced engineer, but a fresh pair of eyes can often identify problems that have been missed elsewhere. It’s bound to take a while to work up your confidence, but the more you question ideas and state alternatives, the more you will learn and develop as a young engineer.

What is the one thing you have done that has been fundamental to your career?

Continually striving to learn more about the industry and the people working in it. Even at this early stage in my career the importance of professional development is clear. Whether this is through a technical lecture or networking over drinks, each is vital to understand the profession and the developments taking place within it.

What makes you smile about your career?

There’s so much variety and I’m never bored. Sure, some tasks are more interesting than others, but I will always know that something exciting is coming up and that’s what keeps me going. I also get a real buzz from finding solutions to Clients’ problems, and I don’t think there’s a better industry for this, particularly when you get to see your solution being constructed!

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