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From footballer to civil engineer: turning setbacks into opportunities with STEM

Date
24 January 2024

When he switched football for engineering, Emmanuel Afolabi didn’t have much support. To help others, he founded The Fest Hub.

From footballer to civil engineer: turning setbacks into opportunities with STEM
Our STEMFest Inspiring Careers schools programme held at The Valley (Charlton Athletic Stadium) with Northolt High School, Leigh Academy Black Heath, Queen's Park Rangers, Charlton Athletic Community Trust, Ramboll and HS2. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi

I signed for Charlton Athletic Football Club at just eight years old and progressed through the academy ranks as part of a very talented age group.

There was me, Joe Gomez, now of Liverpool Football Club and the England national team, Esri Konsa who’s at Aston Villa, and Ademola Lookman, now out in Italy at Atalanta.

But I didn’t get as many minutes as I wanted on the pitch.

So I didn’t get that time to develop, which is probably the most important time in your career.

I sort of sensed that I wasn’t going to be offered a place on the squad.

So when they brought me into the office and gave me the news, it was just like ‘it is what it is’.

A difficult transition

It was a difficult time.

I went to a few clubs and was let down, so the only option was to go lower and lower in the leagues and that knocked my confidence.

So I just decided to hang my boots up and do something else.

I was a bit embarrassed, because everyone knew me as ‘the footballer’, so I was like ‘what am I now?’.

It’s a difficult transition, I’ll be honest. You’ve got to be strong.

I just decided if I wasn’t going to be a footballer, I still wanted to be something… it was just a matter of what.

Civil engineering opened a new path

Site visit with Queen’s Park Rangers under 18s at the Old Oak Common (HS2) in London. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi
Site visit with Queen’s Park Rangers under 18s at the Old Oak Common (HS2) in London. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi

My cousin was working in civil engineering and through him I’d developed a bit of an interest.

I enrolled in the University of East London and started doing an entry level course in maths and physics. This eventually gave me the credits to move onto a civil engineering degree.

I’ll tell you what, after the first month or two, I was about ready to quit.

I was thinking ‘I’ve stopped playing football and now I’m doing crazy maths and science!’. But I just kept at it.

I followed the right steps, hung around with the right people, I was very determined.

Gained new experience...

When I was in my second year at university, my class was offered placements.

I was lucky enough to get one at Newham Council and I worked there as a part-time trainee civil engineer during my third year.

That gave me the experience I needed.

The company I work for now, Ramboll, gave me an interview after university, and I got the job straight away!

... and new perspectives

I now deal with below ground drainage and highways.

One of the things that has inspired me in STEM and engineering is how important it is for countries to thrive and develop.

I see the penny drop when I talk to young people now about civil engineering and explain how what we do helps us live our lives.

When I’m walking down the street now, I’m always looking at curbs and drains to see what’s wrong with them – being an engineer really does give you a different view of the world!

The Fest Hub is born

Site visit with Charlton Athletic under 18s at Kings Cross with Bam Nuttall Construction and Ramboll. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi
Site visit with Charlton Athletic under 18s at Kings Cross with Bam Nuttall Construction and Ramboll. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi

Not long after graduation, I realised I wanted to do more to help other young people find their inner engineer.

So I founded The Fest Hub in 2021.

At The Fest Hub we help young people from disadvantaged communities and professional sports club scholars find out about STEM careers. We work with football, rugby, cricket, and more.

The idea actually came to me while I was just listening to TALKsport, and they were discussing the general lack of support for players.

Just because football (or whatever else a young heart is set on) doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that’s the end, you can go on and do something else.

I think that’s the beauty of our programme. I’ve been in their shoes. I can relate to them.

If you can use football to attract young people into STEM, I think it blends very well, and I would recommend all community trusts and foundations to get involved and support young people.

Sean Daly, CEO of Millwall Community Trust

What we do

At The Fest Hub we do hands-on activities, discuss roles and responsibilities, raise awareness and work in a team – linking it all with sport to bring a different dynamic.

We use the energy and passion young people have for sports to engage them in STEM.

We do it in close collaboration with clubs such as Charlton Athletic, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham.

The Fest Hub has two branches:

  • CLUBfest: supporting professional sports clubs and players with workshops at training grounds, mentoring, and site visits
  • STEMfest: addressing the lack of STEM awareness in the charitable arms of sports clubs by holding workshops on engineering, coding, programming and more.

The idea is to open the players’ eyes to different career opportunities out there.

From football they’ve got transferable skills which some of them don’t realise they have – like leadership and working as a team – that are easily applied in different areas.

Chase Hill, head of player care at Charlton Athletic Academy

Raising awareness and getting recognition

More sports clubs are starting to open their eyes to the importance of providing STEM to players or students.

I attended the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) Awards alongside my colleagues at Ramboll, and I’m happy to announce that The Fest Hub had won the Best Social Value Project of the Year Award!

A remarkable achievement and our third award in the space of a year! Great to see the work we do with our sports clubs, schools and partners being recognised.

Students from Leigh Academy Blackheath after winning The Most Sustainable Design Award representing Ramboll and Charlton Athletic Community Trust. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi
Students from Leigh Academy Blackheath after winning The Most Sustainable Design Award representing Ramboll and Charlton Athletic Community Trust. Image credit: Emmanuel Afolabi

You can’t be what you can’t see

The Fest Hub company slogan is ‘you can’t become what you can’t see’.

I’m trying to get lots of people and organisations to join me in helping make engineers more visible.

My employer Ramboll has been brilliant at supporting and recognising our work.

I think there’s a lot more scope for inspiration if the greater civil engineering community works together.

Related links

The Fest Hub invites ICE members to support our unique programmes by volunteering to be mentors. You can help lead workshops and support sports clubs that lack STEM knowledge.

For more ways to get involved, visit The Fest Hub.

Register as a STEM Ambassador

  • Emmanuel Afolabi, founder and managing director at The Fest Hub