For this series we ask people to answer a set series of questions which will hopefully give a good insight into what their jobs involve, how you can get a foot on the ladder and how a new employee in the field could expect their career to develop.
So without further ado, over to Pete:
What do you do during a typical day?
Working in consultancy means that days tend to be pretty varied, which is one of the perks of it. However, for the majority of the week you would find me at a computer screen doing a variety of tasks. My clients in the last couple of years include Network Rail, Local Councils in the Midlands, house builders, renewable energy providers and pension funds. My specialisms are in hydraulic modelling of rivers and flow estimation so I spend quite a bit of time doing this using GIS and the specialist software. Writing reports takes up quite a bit of time but being a consultant I tend to also spend a lot of time on the phone! Talking with clients, partners, sub-consultants, the Environment Agency and others is critical to ensure the outcomes our clients require. In the last couple of years, I have ended up providing advice to a number of pension funds and other investors around issues surrounding flooding and watercourses; which looks at issues from a monetary aspect rather than risks to people.
How much time do you spend working with rivers in the field?
Not enough! I am a fluvial specialist but also dip my toe into surface water and tidal issues, so most of my work involves rivers in some way. However, I would say that on average I would only be on a site visit to a river around once every couple of months. As a graduate it is likely to be more regular but as you progress up the ladder you tend to go to more meetings than site visits! Mostly on our visits we stay out of the water and are generally walking over rivers and floodplains to examine how we expect the hydraulics to behave in times of flood. We try to follow the motto that unless you’ve seen it you can’t model it, but given the commercial pressures that can’t always happen. Occasionally we get to do more interesting visits such as sediment sampling, basic surveying and dye tracing, but often we prefer to pay specialists to do this for liability reasons.
What qualifications do you need to get into an entry level job in this/your profession?
The vast majority of my team will have a first degree in civil engineering, geography or other science, with a Masters degree in hydrology or something water related. I personally have an undergraduate Masters degree in Geographical Sciences, but undertook a dissertation focussing on hydraulic modelling. However, if you can undertake work experience at a consultancy during your studies then some companies will take people on with only a Bachelors, as we are currently. Often companies will sponsor junior staff to then complete a Masters degree part time if they commit a certain number of years to working there.
What other things are useful/essential to get into the profession (work experience, professional membership)?
I think to demonstrate that you have a knowledge, understanding and interest in the environment is important and to be numerate and literate (although this is fairly much assumed if you’ve done a degree). I’d always recommend that people join CIWEM who are an excellent institution and have many interesting talks with a cheap student rate. In addition, I think the British Hydrological Society is well worth joining, and for those more interested in environmental matters IEMA. Getting work experience within consultancy is highly recommended as we tend to employ the undergraduates that we have if we like them. It also gives you a chance to see if you like the work and pace of it.
What skills and knowledge would a typical flood risk consultant pick up in the first few years on the job?
With the nature of the work you can expect to become proficient in GIS (at WSP, that would involve all three major packages – ArcGIS, MapInfo and QGIS), report writing, numerical analysis, the entire Microsoft Office suite, WINFAP, FEH CD-ROM, 1D and 2D commercial modelling packages, basic AutoCAD and softer skills such as negotiating and problem solving. At a large multinational consultancy you should have the opportunity to interact with multiple disciplines and listen to seminars on a wide range of topics. For example, in the past 12 months I’ve listened to talks on everything from the use of drones in ecology surveys to concrete piling.
What would be a typical career progression for someone in this area?
Consultancy is a good way of getting varied experience quickly. Generally people find an area that they enjoy and want to specialise in that. Most firms talk about three pathways for a career – technical specialist, client/business development and project management. In reality, all three are normally involved in career progression but as people go up the ladder they end up doing less of the technical day to day work and more management/strategy/finances. In terms of bands, new employees are normally graduates for 2-4 years and consultant level for a further 2-4 years. After 4-5 years you should be expecting to be managing your own small projects, take part in training the most junior staff and be involved in building relationships with clients and winning more work.
Many thanks to Pete for taking the time to do this interview, hopefully it’s given a good insight into what a hydrology consultant does. If you want to find out more about careers at WSP Group you can find their graduate/internship page here.
If you are a professional in the water industry and would like to take part in this series, particularly if we haven’t covered your career yet, please get in touch with Simon via twitter or email.