The natural habitat of engineers

Much like sand after a day at the beach, engineers have a habit of turning up in all sorts of unexpected places.

Whilst other professionals might have to accept that signing up for a career means a life of working in an office every day, the work of an engineer is often more hands-on, which can see them ending up in environments ranging from the truly breathtaking, such as the enormous subterranean base of CERN, to the utterly terrifying, such as in war zones across the world.

Whether you’re interested in a life surrounded by the temporary walls of an office cubicle, or you’d be happier stuck in the freezing conditions of the Antarctic, we thought we’d take a look at some of the incredible places that engineers turn up.

All out at sea

Conflict and political uncertainty in the Middle East have meant fluctuating oil prices. While for most people this has meant more expensive petrol, it has been a positive thing for engineering graduates looking to work for the UK’s oil and gas companies. The oil and gas deposits around the UK that were previously considered uneconomic to retrieve are now of great interest, leading to an upsurge in recruitment from major UK oil companies. Currently, all of the oil and gas producers run graduate training programmes that could see you getting out onto a rig.

Prospects for roles such as drilling engineers (sometimes known as well engineers) are excellent, with salary surveys suggesting that after experience you could expect to earn up to £75,000 a year. Oil rigs are considered to be a tough working environment, though. Shift patterns are usually conducted in two week stints with 12 hours on and 12 hours off. This is followed by a break of up to three weeks, although if you’re needed on the rig then you can find yourself whisked back there very quickly. Aside from the hours the weather makes the oil rig a tough place to spend your career. Still, it’s not as boring as an office, is it? 

Out in the cold

The Halley Research Station is run by the British Antarctic Survey and is responsible for many important scientific discoveries, including the hole in the ozone layer. Located on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica this is actually the fifth version of the station, as the previous ones have all been buried and crushed by snow. During the winter a small team of 16 stay on to keep experiments running, but in the summer there can be as many as 70 scientists all conducting research at the station.

Engineers are present in the Antarctic as part of the Antarctic and Marine Engineering (AME) department who support the work of the scientists by designing and building new equipment and maintaining the many different projects that exist. With the harsh environment that sub-zero temperatures bring, high demands are placed on the team of mechanical and electronics engineers out on the ice. To work out there you’d have to be comfortable with a degree of loneliness as well - the highlight of the year is the arrival of the one supply ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, which is an annual event!

Deep under the earth

How about this for a place to work? With the Eastern part of the Saitama province in Japan prone to flooding, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry began a 240 billion Yen programme to build one of the world’s most impressive storm drains. The end result was the “underground palace”, a 6.3km conduit that connects the Otoshifurutone and Edo rivers and is in place should they ever need to store excess water.

While not every project that goes on is quite as impressive as the tunnels at Kasukabe there are still plenty of opportunities for civil engineers who fancy spending their lives underneath the earth. In the UK not only do civil and maintenance engineers work constantly on the Eurotunnel (the longest undersea tunnel in the world, connecting the UK mainland and France) but the London Underground system, maintained by Transport For London, is also in need of engineers (see our story on Rail).

In the middle of a war

Engineers are needed in many different branches of the British military, including the Royal Engineers. While the role of a combat engineer will vary wildly depending on the type of terrain that the war is being fought on (the Corps’ motto is “ubique”, or everywhere) the main objective is to provide engineering support to the troops on the frontline, as well as creating and maintaining the infrastructure of any campaigns.

The Royal Engineers (or Sappers as they’re also known) are trained in a trade as well so they have hands-on skills as well as technical engineering knowledge. Graduates joining the unit will have the chance to progress to a Chartered engineer status, or qualify as a chartered surveyor. On the downside you’ve also got to shoulder the responsibility for up to 30 soldiers and several million pounds worth of engineering equipment and military vehicles - often in a combat zone. No pressure, though. 

At the beginning of new universes

If you needed any convincing about the importance of CERN, it's not only the birthplace of the Internet, but it's also centre stage in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons (introducing a very odd sort of anti matter to a credulous world). Aside from that sort of science fiction, CERN is home to the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and a place more than 2,000 employees and 7,000 scientists from 600 different universities and research institutes call the office.

CERN is a hive of engineers, ranging from software engineers who have helped to construct one of the world’s most complex super-computers, to analyse the results of the experiments, through to the UK civil engineering firms which helped to construct the 27km tunnel which houses the particle accelerator.

Back in the office

Whilst it’s true that engineers do end up in some incredibly exciting places, it’s also a fact that the vast majority of engineers experience at least a proportion of their working life in an office. Far from being a negative thing, many engineers view the balance between site work and time spent in the office as a bonus - as it means that they never get the chance to be bored of their working environment. Increasingly though, as broadband connections and home computers get faster, the most likely destination to find an engineer is at home. The Future Foundation recently stated that there are now 2.5 million people working at home in the UK and that by 2020 16 per cent of employees will telework, and when you think about it, if you can work at home in your pyjamas, surely that’s the best environment of all?

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