Giving some insight into our engineering apprenticeships, we talk to Chris Johnson about his career journey with RPS – from school-leaver to working in airport design:
Chris joined RPS as a trainee Engineering Draughtsperson - fresh from secondary education. Since then, his career has evolved with RPS' support - leading to a Civil Engineering honours degree, and the recent achievement of promotion to Principal Engineer, working in our Aviation team.
We catch up with him to look at his career path so far and find out why he feels RPS is such a rewarding place to work.
What made you choose a career in this field?
I started out in 2004. I was straight out of school looking for a job. I didn’t think university was right for me at the time and was keen to do an apprenticeship that would allow me to learn on the job.
Engineering appealed to me for the problem-solving it involves, and the opportunity to work on something with tangible results. Not long after, I saw the scheme advertised and joined RPS as a trainee Draughtsperson, being one of five that were taken on at the time. Three of us are still here 15 years later!
What did that role involve?
I began in the Highways team and I spent four years in this role. During this time I reported directly to a mentoring Senior Engineer who taught me many of the basic design principles that I still use today. I was responsible for creating technical drawings for construction projects and undertaking vehicle swept path analysis. Among other projects I was involved on in these first years were a six-lane motorway in Malabo and the Mitchell Troy to Monmouth dual carriageway. One day each week I studied for my college qualifications, and in four years I did my national and higher certificates in Civil Engineering; both of which RPS supported me through.
What did you do next?
After that I decided to go to university to complete my degree in Civil Engineering, and left RPS for four years to complete my studies. I was offered the opportunity to do my degree on day release but was keen to get stuck in to the course so decided to do it full-time.
When did you decide to re-join RPS?
In 2012 I left university looking for a position as a Graduate Engineer. I considered several companies but ultimately decided to re-join RPS as I knew it was a company that looked after you, gave great opportunities to develop and could offer the exposure to the type of projects I was interested in. A lot of my colleagues were also still at the company which helped. People do tend to stick around here – which is testament to the working environment!
Fast-forwarding to the current day, what does your role involve now?
I now work in the Aviation team which sees me work for airports across the UK and Ireland. We do a range of projects, but most commonly design and build contracts for airport maintenance, rehabilitation and expansion looking at runways and taxiways.
What is the best thing about your job?
As a civil engineer you typically want to decide whether you’ll be office-based or work full-time away from home on the construction sites. The office-based roles can either be for a design consultancy such as RPS or for an organisation responsible for maintaining an asset such as a local council. The on-site roles would typically be for a contractor and involve moving to different construction sites.
Often a design consultancy such as RPS will want to have a designer on-site ensuring the works are built correctly and that design decisions can be made throughout the project. I’ve been lucky to experience the best of both worlds and during my time at RPS I have undertaken approximately 18 months of site-based work through a number of full-time placements as a Supervising Engineer. These have provided me with valuable experience that I’m able to apply to other projects.
In Summer 2014 I worked at Skanska Doncaster before moving to City of Derry Airport from August through to November 2014, working on the approach light gantry into Lough Foyle. I then spent nine months from January 2015 at Cambridge Airport supervising the runway overlay, working night shifts to avoid impact on the live airport.
Tell us about the best projects you have worked on?
Over the last few years I have worked on two really brilliant projects that stand out for me. The first is the Dublin Airport rehabilitation project which was a runway pavement overlay that needed to be installed while avoiding impacts on daytime operations. We also proposed use of a specialist additive in the pavement material which changed the engineering properties of the asphalt and provided me with experience of polymer modifiers and asphalt reinforcement.
The second has been masterplanning for the Development Consent Order (DCO) application to re-open Manston Airport in Kent. This type of work, masterplanning for a new airport, is a rare opportunity in the industry. Often an airport scheme will involve expanding an airport’s operations whilst working around existing assets and constraints but the Manston project allowed for development almost from scratch to suit the end use. The DCO process has also involved public consultations and examination hearings, challenging me to produce both technical and non-technical explanations for the work we do and has allowed me to engage with the general public about a project in their local area.
What does the next fifteen years look like for you?
Our Aviation team is growing, and we have secured a position on a number of key frameworks – including design partners to Gatwick Airport - so I am looking forward to the opportunities that brings!
What would you say to someone starting out in your profession?
For young people who are unsure whether they want to go to university I would definitely recommend looking at apprenticeship opportunities. The chance to learn on the job and gain professional experience on live projects alongside completing your qualifications is fantastic. The support and mentoring I received was also brilliant, the management team here have continually supported my development and given me the right opportunities along the way to get me where I am today.
RPS continues to offer these positions for apprenticeships each year which is really good to see as I know first-hand how valuable it is.
If you are interested in applying for a Civil / Structural Engineering apprenticeship with RPS, come along to our open day on 10 April. Contact Angela Parnham by Friday 5 April to register to attend.