The life & times of an HVAC Engineer











Having won the Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme Engineering Award in November, I’m privileged to be receiving mentoring from senior engineer, Ben White, of Byrne Bros. We met for the first time in late January and it made for a fascinating morning. At CEL, routes to senior leadership have historically been through project management rather than through rising through the technical engineering ranks. Ben however, is a man after my own heart; he’s an engineer who wants to remain an engineer. The senior position he has risen to, and his own desire to stay a part of engineering, is a fantastic demonstration to me that it is possible to take an engineering route to the top, and to remain involved in engineering even at relatively high levels of seniority.

But having a mentor has benefits beyond providing a role model. Back on our first meeting we discussed all sorts of minor workplace challenges & he gave me some really good ideas to try out back in the office. Last but not least, the Construction Youth Trust has done an amazing job at managing to match me up with a mentor who really suits my ambitions & values. I’m very passionate about developing the people around me and in the long run getting them to engage with the next generation of engineers themselves. Ben is in the process of rolling out technical development programmes for the engineers working for him, and trying to figure out how he could roll this out to the rest of the company too. Given that this is a career goal of mine I think it’s going to make for a very interesting year hearing about his successes and lessons learnt from that project! 

Shard in Construction

Image credit: Jamie Barras

The main topic of conversation for our second meeting though was the Shard as I was lucky enough to be given a tour (Ben’s company, Byrne Group, are doing much of the work on site – hence our ‘backstage passes’ for the day). Construction and project management techniques used for high rise multi-use property are in some areas massively different from what you would find on the sorts of sites I’m familiar with, making it a very interesting and educational tour. That said, there were a lot of cross overs too, and the usual challenges of managing multiple contractors and trades within one site. Perhaps one learning for me to take back to my industry in that regard is dividing the construction site into sections (easily done on a high rise, as you can do it by floor) and then having managers/foremen supervising an area rather than a trade. It would certainly fit well with the concepts of collaborative working that we encourage on site.

The mentoring session wasn’t just about taking a trip around a construction site though; I got to have some very interesting discussions. Projects have been a little slow in the lull of winter, and I’ve had a lot of non-engineering work to do. Being the engineering geek I am I’ve struggled to find the motivation for some of these pieces of work as I’d rather be doing some HVAC maths & problem solving. Being able to talk it through with my mentor though gave me much more of the bigger picture, and has inspired me to make the most of these tasks. He’s also given me some great ideas about how to make the things I’m doing have even more of a positive impact on my company that they would have done. In fact as I write this the clock is counting down to an imminent meeting with my manager to discuss taking those ideas forwards. Talking with Ben has also made me feel much more positive and excited about a possible secondment opportunity I have…but more on that one if it comes to fruition.

For all the benefits mentoring by Ben & Byrne Group is providing for me though, it’s not all one way. I have to say I’ve felt a little pleased with myself at the end of both sessions so far, as each time my mentor has also gone away with a little idea from me & WSP CEL that may well be of use to him.  It just goes to show, there’s always something more to learn and it can come from any direction!

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As you may have read in my previous post about getting chartered, my goal for a very long time was to be a chartered engineer. The problem, however, with achieving goals is that you either need to have another goal lined up before you manage it, or you end up feeling a bit lost after the initial elation. It didn’t even occur to me to think about ‘what next’ before I got chartered…so I fell off a bit of a cliff in terms of knowing what I want from life. So since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of my career.

I had been working in building services, but due to the type of work we currently have in the business there was no immediate opportunity to move into a lead/senior role, and no new challenges on the horizon. Thankfully I’m a part of a company who recognizes my need for challenge, development and change and now I’m on secondment in project engineering in the chemical side of the business.

But, like some of the students who have just received their A-Level results, or many of the 2011 graduates, I now have the combined puzzles of ‘what do I want to do next?’ and ‘how am I supposed to figure that out?’. It’s an age old question that people ponder over time and time again through out their lives, and it’s one that certainly doesn’t have a correct answer!

For me, unlike the students picking degree courses & so on, the question is not much about what the content of my work is, or the technical subject, but what do I find rewarding about it? I know I enjoy engineering, particularly building services and particularly the process industry. I’m also enjoying a lot of what I’m doing as a project engineer, which is what makes it so hard to pick between them and to come up with some long term career goals. For me the rewards are overcoming a challenge (I love problem solving), making the world a better place (which is why I like pharmaceuticals & talking in schools) and being recognised for what I’m doing (who doesn’t appreciate a pat on the back after all).

The former two can find satisfaction in many different roles and at my level & age recognition is relatively simple. There are lots of managers I report to, or folk who are keeping an eye on what I’m doing & they can give me a pat on the back, or a thank-you/well done & that means something to me. There are also still visible promotions in reach. There are also lots of award schemes out there for people at my level. But an interesting dilemma is how do you balance out the desire to progress upwards within the company/industry with the need for recognition? The higher up you are, the less managers you have, and then the less people there are to tell you that you’ve done a good job. Again, there is no simple answer, other than that as you go up the ladder, you increasingly need to recognise your own achievements and set your own standards & goals…and there were we are back at goals again.

So when considering your future career, what will you want from it? To be a technical expert? A senior manager? To earn lots of money? To have freedom over your time & how you do your work? To have lots of interesting challenges? Do you want recognition? Will you become an entrepreneur? Is family your highest priority? Or do you really want to make the world a better place & serve society? It’s certainly worth considering as whatever it is that makes you tick, satisfying that will make you a lot happier than having picked the right academic topic to focus your career on. Perhaps that’s what school career advisors ought to be focusing on rather than which subjects to pick.

I’m happy with the subjects I picked, and I’m happy with the career I have right now, but I do need to get myself some new goals. Fortunately all the thinking I’ve been doing lately has at least allowed me to pin down what it is that I really love, and that is engagement. I really enjoy getting people excited about engineering, getting clients on board with the idea of using sustainable solutions, getting team members interested in the project work and their own career development, getting teams to be part of a positive health & safety culture and getting the company to buy into people development. All of which are about getting people & teams engaged in something, and it makes me smile. I guess many of those things can be done no matter what role I end up in, lead building services engineer, project manager or whatever else. But it would be interesting to know what roles people think would be ideal for me & my love of getting people ‘engaged’ – although if anyone says matchmaker I will not be impressed!



et cetera
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