• 4 February 2020

Leading the way to a new career

CIHT’s Apprentice of the Year, Sophie Dawson, was completing a degree in Pharmacy before she discovered a new-found passion for Engineering. Here she tells us about her journey to become a qualified Civil Engineer in secondment with Waterman Aspen.

As a child, I never expected to end up in civil engineering. My parents have been very supportive and encouraged me to do well in everything I do, so I always worked hard at Maths and Science at school. However, I thought I’d become a veterinarian after growing up as a dedicated equestrian. As I got older, I realised I wanted to keep my career separate from my hobby but I’ve enjoyed competing in a range of equestrian sports over the years. I’m always willing to try new things and have recently taken up surfing, which is really fun (although I’m not very good at it yet).

I first heard of engineering in secondary school but wasn’t really sure what it involved, assuming it was more of a man’s career. I went on to complete my A-Levels in Physics, Chemistry and Biology before studying Pharmacy at the University of Sunderland. However, after completing a few placements in pharmacies during my third year, I realised it wasn’t what I wanted in a career.

I’ve always looked up to my mother as a strong woman, and she advised me to find something I enjoy doing because we spend a lot of our time at work. I spoke to my family and friends too and it was my brother, who is a Senior Piping Designer, who suggested I use my skills and look into engineering, so I decided to learn more.

Having already studied at university for three years, I was halfway through my gap year when I saw Waterman Aspen were advertising a degree-apprenticeship programme on LinkedIn. I thought it would be more beneficial to gain work experience whilst also studying for a new qualification. Thankfully, I had an easy transition into my future role because I’d developed efficient problem solving and analytical thinking skills during my A-Levels, as well as communication and teamwork throughout my degree.

I sent my CV to Waterman Aspen, whom would employ me in a salaried position and offer me the support I need to further my education, personal and professional development, all whilst seconding me to clients (both private companies and local authorities) as a temporary staff member. After my interview, that was it. I loved the idea of being seconded and didn’t apply for any further positions because it was an ideal way to gain experience in various roles and businesses within engineering, which keeps things interesting.

I started my apprenticeship in September 2018 and have been seconded to Gateshead Council as a Civil Engineer where I’m working in both the network management and highway design teams. I spend one day a week at Teesside University and four days at work where my line manager ensures I’m gaining the relevant experience for my studies.

Having come from a pharmaceutical background, I would definitely recommend an apprenticeship to anyone wanting to get into the industry because studying alone doesn’t give you the experience of working on real-life projects. I had a small understanding of AutoCAD software prior to starting at Gateshead Council, but I’m learning as I go and can now use add-ons like KeyLINES and KeySIGN to produce drawings. I’ve also learned how to use AutoTrack when determining whether a particular type of crane would be able to access the Gateshead Millennium Bridge for maintenance works, it’s really rewarding to see my work being used to construct or improve the highway for users.

I’m currently working on a range of active traffic and highway schemes with two amazing teams, being involved in any project from traffic calming to Gateshead’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ). When I first started working, I was tasked to help develop a more efficient system for the referrals we received for Advisory Disabled Parking Bays, which are reserved for residents with mobility issues, and I’ve now taken a lead in managing these. Over the next few months, I’ll be working with our IT department to install a new application form online, making it easier for the user to submit a referral.

My willingness to try new things means I’m excited to further my skills in a career that I enjoy. I was eager to submit my own application for the CIHT (Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation) North East and Cumbria Awards for ‘Apprentice of the Year’ after seeing another apprentice winning the award in 2018. I was incredibly humbled to win the award on 17 October 2019.

Winning ‘Apprentice of the Year’ really sums up how I feel about my first year in engineering and I’m looking forward to what the next year holds for me.

Sophie Dawson

Mark Emberton, Managing Director for Waterman Aspen, commented; “It’s been a privilege to have Sophie on board with us and we were extremely pleased to hear of her success at the CIHT awards.  Sophie’s story is one of real grit, determination and focus. She is an excellent ambassador for Waterman Aspen, being highly valued at Gateshead Council, and we are looking forward to the next stage of her career as she strives to achieve further academic and professional qualifications.”

If you would like to learn more about National Apprenticeship Week, please visit the Government’s website by clicking here.

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