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Engineering in the army

Engineers work for the British Army - what do they do? Major Matt Smith tells us.

Major Matt Smith Og (1)

Working as an engineer in the British Army is a varied and exciting career.

It can take you all around the world, from building emergency flood defences in the UK, to helping build the hospitals and other structures needed by doctors and nurses treating the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone.

We spoke to Major Matt Smith, Officer Commanding a Specialist Team Royal Engineers, to find out more about what he does, and how he got there...

Name: Matt Smith
Age: 34
Job title: Officer Commanding a Specialist Team Royal Engineers
A-levels: Maths, Physics and Russian
University: BEng(Hons) Civil Engineering, University of Birmingham
MSc Military Construction Engineering, Cranfield University
Student Executive MBA, Cranfield University.
Qualifications: CEng MICE, CMgr MCMI
Employer: HM Forces, Royal Engineers
Where you live: Nottingham

Tell us about your job. What do you do?
As an officer within the Royal Engineers, my career so far has been varied. Over the last 12 years, I have been involved in construction projects in the UK, Iraq, Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada, Kenya and across the Middle East, and taken part in a number of other tasks in between.

Since September this year, I have been in charge of a Specialist Team Royal Engineers, a multi-disciplined engineering consultancy and delivery team with a mix of civil, structural, electrical and mechanical engineers.

My team is around 20 strong and my roles range from providing chartered level input into our design solutions, project and programme management, and managing all aspects of the team - from their welfare to their careers.

We’re currently providing design advice to another team of Royal Engineers who are constructing a new infantry training camp in Kenya and may be designing, project managing and contract managing a new camp elsewhere in the world next year. We can also provide advice on the construction of roads, ports and airfields, essentially any kind of infrastructure the military may need on operations.

What does an average day look like for you?
The content of an average day can vary greatly depending on whether we’re deployed abroad, delivering infrastructure services for military personnel or other government departments; back in barracks conducting detailed design work or infrastructure planning; or on exercise honing our skills as military engineers.

It’s rarely a nine to five job but that’s what continues to keep it interesting and exciting. I’m currently planning our training to ensure we’re ready to deploy anywhere in the world next year and able to tackle a wide range of projects from design through to construction, and finally to facilities management of the estate once it’s built.

Physical training plays an important part of our routine and an average day will often include a run or organised physical training with my team.

How does your work affect people’s lives/the world around us?
Our primary role as Royal Engineers is to help the Army and other services to live, fight and move on operations. Our work delivering infrastructure (e.g. the basic things that allow people to live in an area – for example roads, buildings and power) on operations can give soldiers a place to live and work. It can also support their supply chains and help commanders establish security for local populations and encourage trade and normal life to return.

But we don’t just support our military. Other teams from our organisation are involved in supporting projects all over the world. Last year two teams provided support at short notice and delivered infrastructure in record time to enable UK doctors and nurses to treat the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone.

We may end up deploying early next year to help support the Prime Minister’s plan for the UK to contribute troops to peacekeeping operations in Somalia and South Sudan, strengthening infrastructure to help resolve the humanitarian crises happening there.

How did you first become interested in engineering?

I’d found my academic strengths at school tended to be in science and maths and although I’d wanted to join the Army from a young age, I wanted a career where I could play to these strengths. Engineering seemed to combine everything I’d studied in science, maths and design technology into one discipline.

Early trips to the science museum and, later on, looking at big projects such as railways, airports, bridges and cities made me realise that I wanted to be a civil engineer. The Royal Engineers offered the opportunity to practice engineering amongst a whole host of offer skills and opportunities.

There are a number of different routes you can take into a career in engineering. What route did you take and why?

I was sponsored at university by both the Army and the Institution of Civil Engineers and after graduating, I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for a year of officer training and then another 6 months learning how to lead combat engineering tasks as a Royal Engineers officer.

I spent the next six years in the Royal Engineers doing a variety of general and combat engineering roles on exercise and operations before deciding to specialise further as a chartered engineer.

While my academic skills were initially a little rusty, since becoming chartered I have found the broader planning and communication skills gained in my first six years to be key to being successful in my last few jobs.

How important was studying maths and science in school for what you do now?

As a chartered civil engineer it’s essential that I understand the engineering theory necessary to ensure we deliver a workable project to the client on time and within budget. Studying maths and science in school most definitely set the foundations for future learning at undergraduate and masters level. It’s also helped me in a much broader sense as an engineering manager.

The ability to use logic and critically evaluate ideas helped me play my part as the strategic infrastructure lead back in the UK for the closedown of a huge military base in Afghanistan that, at its largest, was the size of Reading.

What do you like most about engineering?

The ability to define a problem and identify a solution through design and logical problem solving to improve our interaction with our environment makes for an interesting and rewarding career. There is also a definite sense of purpose and you are able to see your input help to shape the solution delivered.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m currently half way through studying for a work sponsored Masters in Business Administration with Cranfield University. That takes up much of my spare time and will help me develop further as an engineering manager in the future. At £35k, it’s not cheap, but it’s just one of the qualifications the Army has paid for to help develop my competencies as an engineer and manager.

As the Army also gives you lots of opportunities to keep fit and undertake sport and adventurous training, I still try and enjoy some marathon and sea kayaking when the opportunity arises.

I’m also an entry level kayaking instructor and I still get a buzz out of coaching when the opportunity arises. I’ve been daft enough to complete the 125-mile non-stop Devizes to Westminster canoe race 3 times with the Army and while the training around the day job was fairly busy, it was worth it at the finish every time!

What personal qualities are important for being an engineer?

Our technical abilities form the foundation stones of being an engineer. But we also need the ability to communicate effectively and explain our technical solutions to clients and users in plain language to ensure we deliver the best results within the available time, funding and the desired scope.

As my career has progressed, the ability to work as part of a team under pressure and the ability to make judgements based on sound experience have helped enhance credibility and the value of my role as a specialist within the Army.

If you could go back in time and invent anything, what would it be?

I’d like to be part of the team that created the concept for the Mulberry harbours. These were made from giant floating concrete caissons during World War 2 and probably tops my list as one of the most effective military engineering solutions. It ultimately allowed D-day to succeed and contributed to the end of the Second World War. That or Netflix, as its great for keeping up with the box sets at home on the weekend.

What advice would you give a young person who was considering engineering as a future career?

There are loads of different paths into engineering and it’s such a broad discipline that you have the ability to vary the areas you work in and the roles you undertake as your career develops and your interests change. It’s certainly a career I’d I’d recommend on the basis that it offers a rewarding career for life and the opportunity to really make a difference in your work to those around you.

More links:

Careers in the British Army
The Corps of Royal Engineers

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