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An Officer and a Civil Engineer: 3 reasons why army training made me a better civil engineer

30 June 2021

Second Lieutenant Nathanael Pickett explains how being an army reservist helped him tap into his hidden potential to improve his skills in his day job.

An Officer and a Civil Engineer: 3 reasons why army training made me a better civil engineer
In the Army Reserve, Nathanael Pickett was exposed to challenging environments. Image credit: South East RFCA

Civil engineers are leaders. We do not just build the physical fabric of society, but have an impact on how society lives and thrives. Civil engineers have the opportunity to drive change, and to provide solutions to overcome the challenges facing humanity.

To achieve this, we must be effective leaders as well as being technically skilled. The construction industry is about people, utilising a skilled workforce alongside materials and tools to build infrastructure.

I underwent leadership training with Southampton University Officer Training Corps (OTC) while studying civil engineering at university. This gave me a technical foundation as well as a grounding of what leadership is about.

On graduation, I worked as a graduate engineer for a local contractor and joined my local Army Reserve unit. But why would I volunteer my free time to be in the army? What is the benefit? What is the link with civil engineering?

1. Civil engineers must be team players

During my soldier training I was taught teamwork as well as a range of military skills. An effective leader must be able to follow as well as lead. I was exposed to challenging environments where success was achieved only through developing teamwork skills and mental resilience.

Civil engineers must also be team players. For example, as a site engineer, without the cooperation of steel fixers, carpenters, concrete finishers, concrete supplier, and a concrete pump, pouring a 30m3 wall would be impossible.

Soldiers and civil engineers need to work well in teams. Image credit: Army Training Regiment Winchester
Soldiers and civil engineers need to work well in teams. Image credit: Army Training Regiment Winchester

Construction sites on occasion become stressful and emotional environments. Consequently, the ability to be collected and focussed on your own job while working alongside other trades is very important. Fortunately, my soldier training helped me prepare and develop this skill.

After time as a soldier, I successfully passed the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) as an officer cadet (OCdt).

The selection process was intense, lasting a total of five days. I received honest feedback on both my character and intellect. This was hard to read, but it was instrumental in developing me as a leader and team player. It helped me to understand who I am and to become ‘comfortable in my own skin’.

2. Civil engineers must be self-aware

RMAS is a world-leading military training academy that prides itself on "excellence in leadership”. It boasts alumni including kings, princes, prime ministers, and at least one civil engineer!

I attended the commissioning course short alongside other reservist officer cadets who came from a range of industries and backgrounds.

Just like construction, the army’s biggest asset is its people. Being able to effectively plan, manage and lead this vital resource is at the heart of its leadership training. I was taught the theory of leadership and management by leading academics who challenged my preconceptions on leadership and the role of teamwork in an effective team.

I was also taught the combat estimate, which is the planning tool used by the British Army. I was assessed on my practical leadership abilities on exercises.

Exercises are where the army practises being on military operations, normally for extended periods of time. Your diet consists of ration packs, you’re firing blank ammunition and operating on less sleep than you might have thought possible. The latter element really shows your character, and surprisingly aids in understanding who you really are.

How you respond in a challenging army exercise tells you a lot about yourself. Image credit: The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
How you respond in a challenging army exercise tells you a lot about yourself. Image credit: The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

When it’s 2:30am, you’ve had three hours disturbed sleep, it’s raining, and you’ve been told you need to search through all your belongings because someone has misplaced the spare radio battery…again. How would you react? I know how I would like to react. How I responded and interacted with my fellow officer cadets taught me a lot about myself and them!

At Sandhurst I learned a lot about leadership, management, and planning, but also something I was not expecting, myself.

The feedback given at RMAS was focused on the leader as a whole. This holistic approach is something rarely received in our industry, where key performance indicators take precedence. But the importance of a 360-review process is paramount. To become the best engineers we can be, we must understand our strengths and weaknesses not just technically but also in our ability to work with those around us.

3. Civil engineers must be ethical

Further to understanding our skills as the stewards of tomorrows society, we must act within our professional moral compass. Our values will be challenged, often against commercial imperatives. We have the duty as civil engineers to act with professional integrity as stated in the ICE code of professional conduct.

How can we know that we will act with integrity and that our values reflect the profession we represent if we do not know what we personally stand for? What our values are? What would we accept? What wouldn’t we accept? Throughout my journey as a reservist officer, I am actively encouraged to reflect upon my personal values. This understanding of my morality is reflected in my work and has made me a better civil engineer.

Civil engineers must lead

Rightly, employers must ensure employees are trained in compliance with the law. Rarely, however, is there a focus on long-term development of the individual. The Army has invested resources in my personal development, consequently enriching and informing my work as a civil engineer.

The Army Reserve is not for everyone, but all engineers should consider what they can do to develop themselves outside of business hours. Online, there are scores of courses, books, and articles available to aid self-development. I encourage everyone to make the use of these resources and unlock your hidden potential.

What makes a leader
What makes a leader

To meet the challenges that lie ahead, civil engineers must be team players, self-aware and ethical.

We must seek to develop ourselves beyond our job specification, for me the Army Reserve has and continues to do this.

As we continue the great work of Thomas Telford, we should not lose sight that we are the stewards of tomorrow’s society and must be capable of rising to the challenges of this generation. To do this, we must remember that all civil engineers are leaders.

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