What is it like to start a graduate career in transport?


An engineering degree doesn’t necessarily mean you will become an engineer. It’s a vast industry with roles at all levels and stages of project delivery. Recent engineering graduate, Melina Christina, explains how a degree in engineering has led to a career in transport planning and modelling.

What do you do?

I am a graduate engineer in the transport modelling team in the London office of WSP, a global professional services consultancy. I was transferred two months ago, after spending eight months with the transport planning team in the same office.

What is transport planning and modelling?

The work undertaken in the transport modelling team is mostly to analyse the impact of developments on local infrastructure. To assess impacts we use a variety of modelling software packages to carry out junction modelling and traffic simulations. We also do dynamic pedestrian modelling to study the movement of people in places such as stations or buildings. This provides information about potential capacity issues and helps architects, who are our clients, in their design work. Transport planners help developers put together planning applications by producing transport assessments, travel plans, and network analysis.

Why is it important?

The number of people in cities is increasing at higher rates. We need excellent transport systems to allow people and businesses to move around and undertake their activities. This is even more challenging in the context of climate change, as the transport sector has a huge impact on emissions.

How did you become a transport planner?

My passion is cities; the way they operate and are organised. After two years of preparatory classes in mathematics and physics in Paris, I decided to enter an engineering school in France (equivalent to a postgraduate degree), providing training for civil servants working in transport, housing, building and engineering departments. Courses covered a range of different engineering areas and developed my awareness of the challenges faced by cities. I then specialised in transport, doing my master’s degree in transport planning at Imperial College London and UCL. I was particularly interested in transport because of its structuring effect on the city and because it is both a human and technical topic.

How does an engineering degree help being a transport modeller?

An engineering degree provides a good level of problem solving skills. These skills are transferable to the work of a transport modeller who faces problems on a daily basis when it comes to model building, validation and calibration.

Why did you want to work in London?

I always wanted to work abroad. I enjoy the challenges of finding my place in a new environment, along with meeting new people. I really fell in love with London and wanted to stay after my MSc. London is fantastic: it is a big city where you never get bored, but this is combined with a local atmosphere created by the markets and low height buildings. Moreover, there are people from all over the world. From the professional point of view, I wanted to work in London for the opportunities that it offers, as you are more likely to work on international projects and attend more events.

Why did you want to work for WSP?

I was attracted to WSP because it is an international company; it doesn’t only give the opportunity to work on international projects, but it also offers the chance to be transferred to offices in other countries and around the UK as well. Moreover, WSP provides services across different sectors, which means I can interact with a structural engineer one day and an environmental consultant the next.

Have you worked on any exciting or interesting projects?

After only one month in the transport modelling team, I worked on an international project, undertaking pedestrian modelling for a massive tourist attraction to be built in the Middle East. We modelled the movement of visitors in the attraction, going through ticket and security facilities. It was very challenging from a technical point of view.

What is the toughest part of your job?

Working in an English speaking environment is the toughest part. I can’t be as quick as I could be if I was in my own country, France. This leads to a lot of frustration sometimes. But I learned to be patient, and most of all, persevering. Communication is a vital skill for a transport modeller as it requires discussing and understanding the assumptions made and explaining our results.

What would your advice be to someone thinking of studying engineering or choosing transport planning as a career?

Keep in mind that engineering is much wider than you might think. Even transport planning is not only about transport – this is what makes it so interesting. Working on transport projects requires dealing with and understanding many issues from different disciplines. For example, transport deals with the movement of people, so it is important to talk with social scientists to learn about human behaviour.

An aspiring transport planner needs to be curious and knowledgeable about different subjects, and develop their open mindedness by speaking with different professionals to understand their problems, as engineering is ultimately about finding solutions and problem solving.


Why graduates should take advantage of the rail industry’s skills gap


As train travel increases, so does the need for talented graduates to join the sector. This is why it’s a great career option
Trains on a railway track
Trains on a railway track

We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for graduate careers in rail. Photograph: WSP WSP/PR

The UK is currently seeing unprecedented public investment in rail with huge projects set to transform our aging network for the future. Yet as the workload increases the industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers to deliver on the investment.

Travel on our rail network is set to increase. Rail travel currently accounts for 8% of all trips in the UK but this is expected to rise steadily in coming years. Journeys have already increased by 60% since 1995, the result of many more people starting to travel by train, particularly for business. And, to accommodate the extra journeys, timetabled train kilometres have increased every year for a decade.

To meet this demand, the Government has committed £38bn over the next five years in an ambitious programme aimed at ensuring we have the world class infrastructure we need to compete at a global level. The London rail project, Crossrail, is the largest infrastructure project in Europe. When it opens in 2018, it will provide trains for an estimated 200 million people to travel to and around London annually, increasing London’s rail capacity by 10%. High Speed 2, the ambitious plan to extend high speed rail from London to the north, will bring with it better connections and faster travel times.

Julie Carrier, UK head of rail at consultancy WSP, which has a large rail team working on projects including Crossrail and HS2, says there couldn’t be a more exciting time to work in rail.

“We are currently seeing a rail renaissance,” she says. “HS2 is a hugely exciting project that has the potential to be a game changer for the UK; it’s not just about high speed train travel, but connectivity, agglomeration and bringing opportunities outside of London. However, to fully grasp all the benefits that HS2 and other projects will bring us we must have a fully skilled workforce ready to deliver it.”

In fact the engineering industry in general is facing a skills gap in the future. It’s estimated that the UK will need 100,000 engineering graduates every year until 2020 just to maintain the current employment levels. One of the biggest problems is the lack of diversity – only 8.7% of engineers in the UK are female. By comparison, the rail workforce is made up of around 84,500 engineers and only 4.4% are female. According to a recent report by the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), we will need between 1,600 and 2,000 new people in the next five years in signalling and telecommunications, with over 30% of these people being at technician level or above. Around 1,000 engineers will be needed for electrification and plant in the next few years, which is equivalent to 30% of the current workforce.

Julie says the skills shortage is very apparent in the rail industry and an issue that large companies like WSP are proactively tackling. “One of the biggest problems we have as an industry is our image. People typically think that rail engineers spend their time in muddy boots and hard hats, but it’s just not the case anymore. My role is very much a professional services role, liaising with clients, going to meetings with project teams across many different companies, travelling around our regional offices visiting members of my wider team. I do regularly visit railway stations, but more often that’s because I’m going somewhere, not working on them!”

WSP’s UK head of recruitment, Carol White, agrees. “We do struggle to explain that even though we do a lot of engineering work, we are a consultancy working up practical and innovative solutions to problems, not engineers on the ground. There needs to be better education on what an engineering, geography, planning or environmental science degree can lead to – we have many different roles across many different fields, all of which might get involved in rail at some stage whether it be at the planning and design stage or in project management. There is a huge range of different skills needed in the rail industry, so graduates of any science based degree should consider whether there is something for them.”

There are a number of initiatives in the industry to grow the skills base, one of which is the new High Speed Rail academy. HS2 is predicted to create around 400,000 jobs when it starts construction in 2017, and to safeguard its delivery, the Government announced the creation of the first new further education college in 20 years in January. Four areas have been shortlisted to house the new college which will train up the next generation of engineers – Birmingham, Derby, Doncaster and Manchester.

But until these engineers come into the industry, it’s imperative that companies like WSP attract in as many graduates and apprentices as possible. Julie says many graduates with degrees that could apply to the rail industry look elsewhere for jobs. “We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for rail. For a young person there are so many benefits and exciting things to get involved in – the advancement in smart technologies and how they are shaping the wider transport industry, the opportunity to be involved in the biggest construction projects in the UK and the chance to travel the world because this is ultimately a global industry. What other industry can offer all this and more?”

Post Graduation Blues: Jobhunt

Looking for work after Graduation

So you’ve graduated and started your search for work, it may be the case that your peers and classmates have successfully acquired a position in a blue chip firm already. If you have the opportunity take advantage of that situation, it may be worthwhile examining their application to benefit from their approach. Analysing their application may reap dividends but bear in mind that anything further could prove to be futile: most graduates who achieve early success to obtaining a position cannot adequately advise you in your pursuit simply because they cannot appreciate your hardship.

I’ve encountered many graduates who seem a little despondent when asked about their pursuit of work over the last few years. As a consequence, I’ve offered many of them my advice having felt that their approach was a little bit like firing of an Uzi and hoping it hits the target. After numerous personal emails and advice, I thought it would be better if I blog my thoughts on how their pursuit could prove a little more fruitful.

Read the bullet points and if you care to do so, read the corresponding explanation if you think it is relevant to your circumstance:

  • Know what you want to do.

Whatever your subject may be you should have some idea about the field you want to prepare to work in. Some degrees carry additional weight and many firms would be very happy to employ graduates of hard subjects (Maths, Physics, etc). Similarly, there are many jobs who would happily employ a candidate based on their achievement as a graduate because it is their benchmark of potential or ability. As a consequence, try and focus on a field that you would like to work in, create a list of primary/secondary/contingencies for fields of work.

If you are not sure what you would like to do, have a look at the Penguin Guide to Careers, most library’s should stock one and if not you can request it. Consider what you enjoy doing or even what you found easy but do not get caught out by settling for the easiest possible career path if you want to progress.

Mature students tend to be more focussed on their career path especially if they are career changers, but never forget the benefits of advice…

  • Utilise the university careers service

The University Careers service can support you in many areas and they vary at every institution. Book an appointment to find out what you can and cannot do, one of the biggest mistakes is overlooking the support that a careers service can provide.

Services can range from CV guidance, to refining searches and identifying jobs, job lists and much more. They will also give you information on employers, developing skills and could put you in contact with potential suitors.

Remember, careers services are also available in your local boroughs and towns.

  • Careers Fairs

Sign up to careers fairs and do not consign them to the trash bin. Gradmail, TargetJobs, Prospects and others are all valid sources of finding information and employers to talk to. If you are serious about getting a job, you need to log on, register and attend these events. What you will find is an exhibition hall where employers are waiting to talk to you about their recruitment processes, their company and what jobs are available. Take every opportunity to register with employers because they could match you to a position that becomes available in the future.

  • Update your CV

And make sure it’s not just one! Make it relevant to the job you are applying for if you have many.

Whether you have acquired any work experience or not put everything in your CV. If your work is relevant and extensive, lead with your job roles – this is especially relevant to mature grads. If on the other hand you have minimal experience, lead with your degree and grade adding any subjects of particular relevance OR strength. If you were awarded for the best dissertation make sure you note it in your CV, additionally if your institution is a specialist in the area of your studies, mention that too.

Cover letter are just as important and they are used to highlight KEY competencies required by the potential employer. DO NOT submit a CV with a paltry cover letter. Look at job descriptions, job specifications wherever you find them and try and adapt you cover letters to it.

  • Agency Work

Many people struggle to find relevant work immediately but do not despair, it is important to build up two things: work experience and; skills.

Agencies may not pay as healthily as a direct employer but there may still be a remote chance of turning a temp/agency contract into a permanent move. Furthermore, the typical graduate is not in need of an astronomical salary, as your career path matures you will command and possibly require more money but do not make it the prime factor in your search.

The skills that you acquire here can be translated into your CV to make it relevant and it will undoubtedly be helpful in your efforts of understanding the big old rat race. Young people are finding it very hard to secure employment throughout Europe, so use all means possible to get a suitable job. Your university should be able to help you with agencies.

  • Expand your skills (Interning)

Internships have had a very bad press but their benefit is amazing and they are getting a lot harder to finalise/gain. Similar to agency work in acquiring experience but I suggest you select internships based on relevance to your career path, most pay appallingly some only pay for travel and food. If you can afford to do it, find an internship that will help you understand your industry or environment.

Ratemyplacement is a fantastic place to find out about internships, they are usually conducted in your sandwich year but they are equally available to you in smaller firms after graduation.  There are other sites that are equally helpful so Google ‘internships.’

Now this is very important, if you get the opportunity to network make 100% sure that you do it. Keep your wits about you and develop your social skills because it will offer you three basic opportunities: a) Develops communication etiquette in the workplace (b) creates an extensive contacts list (c) could secure a permanent position.

  • Graduate Schemes

These schemes are absolutely fantastic if you are successful but they are also incredibly competitive. In more recent years students at Oxbridge and Redbrick institutions are having great success but don’t let that put you off, getting far in these schemes are actually sellable assets (based on high calibre candidates and the fact that you contended with them means that you are a highly valued candidate). Again, if that seems pretty rubbish as an asset, do not underestimate the experience!

On the schemes themselves they are probably the best route into the working environment and many companies consider them essential recruitment programmes. They are essentially training schemes which develop your skills and (most) offer you a job at the end. The salaries are varied but again the benefit of the schemes far outweigh the salaries, in any case an average of 25k is a good base for a new, young graduate.

Scour the internet for graduate schemes, go to individual company websites and ensure you look at the top grad scheme lists supplied by the Times and Guardian.

  • Cold-Calling

Call companies that have positions that you would like to be in and be prepared to work for nothing. YES, work for nothing. Sometimes it pays off. Emails are good but calling gives you greater results because it puts a person on the spot, the amount of positive responses I have got via phone has been incredible.

If for example you wish to work in the field of economics, calling a think tank might prove to be incredibly helpful but you need to negotiate on the phone. Tell them that you are a graduate, mention particularly strong traits and that you read up on this company and would love to try and work for them. Keep your questions open-ended, therefore don’t ask if they have any jobs but ask about what they can do for you. If it isn’t proving successful be a little pushy but polite, remember this is your life you are trying to arrange so look out for number 1!

  • Postgraduate Education

If you are unclear about your path don’t do the stupid thing and select a Masters course for the sake of it. Make sure you have direction and focus, why are you pursuing this avenue, will it benefit you, can you secure a job as a consequence?? These are all questions you should be asking.

Postgraduate education can secure you further internships in some cases but be sure that your end-goal employer is aware of your ability. It does in some cases help you to stand out against the crowd of undergrads but it is by no means a sure bet.

Don’t be scared about taking a backward step but ensure that there are ample opportunities to progress. Sacrificing salary within reasonable limits or sometimes even an outright risk could pay off but you need to draw up a risk analysis and consult a professional for thorough advice.

Preparing for Interviews and Assessment Centres

If you’ve failed to prepare, be prepared to fail.

Congratulations on getting through, now you need to work hard- and when I say hard I mean as much effort as when you did your dissertation or stayed up in the library revising for an exam. Interviews, assessment centres and psychometric tests are put in place to put you under pressure: There is a method in the madness of your last-minute booking for an interview (etc.) so make sure you are more than adequately prepared.

Practice, practice, practice psychometric tests until you’re blue in the face, the chances are once you’ve secured a job you won’t need them again so you may as well dedicate this part of your life to them!

Read up on the company you have applied for, as a preliminary question you will almost definitely be asked about the reason you have applied to the company and/or for this particular role.

Save your question responses on your applications, it will help you to consolidate your answers when/if asked later.

Use the internet and forums to find out about assessment centres, for example if Exxon Mobil has invited you to an assessment for an upstream position in manufacturing, Google it!! There is bound to be some helpful advice available online.