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How does a civil engineer from Scotland end up working in the UAE?

13 July 2022

In our latest Women Like Us blog, Nicolla McCabe hopes to inspire others to ‘grab’ opportunities as they come.

How does a civil engineer from Scotland end up working in the UAE?
Nicolla McCabe didn't expect her career to take her to a country she'd never visited before. Image credit: Nicolla McCabe

Although it seems like yesterday, my career in civil engineering began almost 16 years ago when I accepted my first role in Fairhurst’s bridge engineering team in Scotland, UK.

Having achieved my Higher National Diploma at Dundee College and then my bachelor’s degree at the University of Dundee, I was eager to find out how to put all the theory into practice, in the real world.

I started off developing my engineering knowledge and skills through inspections, assessments and developing repair solutions for bridges of various spans and constructions.

I soon grew to love visits to site. Whether I was knee-deep in water with my waders on, inspecting a bridge soffit or taking in the amazing view from the top of one of the main towers of the Forth Road Bridge – I was happy and welcomed every opportunity!

Changing disciplines, and countries

After six years with Fairhurst, a move to marine consultant (then) Peter Fraenkel & Partners, meant I would spend six months as marine resident engineer. I supervised mooring dolphin concrete repair works in Sullom Voe Oil Terminal in Shetland.

This was the perfect opportunity to expand my site experience further, while gaining a first-hand appreciation of the additional challenges the marine environment would bring (to this day, I still don’t have my sea legs!).

My desire to travel led me to leave the UK in 2014, in search of personal adventure and professional growth.

A senior marine engineer role with Worley, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), offered just that.

Within a month, I was on my way to a country I hadn’t visited before!

New places and career paths

Fast forward almost eight years and I’m still in the UAE.

What I love most about living and working here is that it's a truly multicultural place, with an extremely active construction sector.

And of course, the near-perfect weather for nine months of the year, definitely adds to the enjoyment!

I took the opportunity to transition into project management around five years ago when I joined COWI.

In project management, I’m responsible for all aspects of the technical and commercial delivery and coordination of projects.

This includes contract administration, commercial management, client interfacing, implementation of quality systems, HSE (health and safety management and providing project team leadership.

I now deliver projects across the Middle East, Africa and Asia for NIRAS, as one of its senior project managers.

When the time is right

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and life slowed down, I think most people entered a period of reflection – it was definitely the case for me.

Professionally, it gave me the chance to refocus my goal of becoming a professionally qualified civil engineer.

I'd been on an accredited training scheme with my employers before, while in the UK, and just before leaving, my then supervising civil engineer (SCE) had signed my Initial Professional Development (IPD) off as complete, at Incorporated Engineer (IEng) level.

After a discussion about my circumstances with ICE membership development officer, Aurelia Khisaf, I understood that I was eligible to apply for a CEng Experiential Learning Assessment.

Experiential learning is an opportunity for engineers, who don’t have the required academic qualifications, to become a Chartered (or Incorporated) Engineer.

When I made my experiential learning submission, I needed to prove how my work-based experience gave me the same level of engineering knowledge and skills as someone who is educationally qualified for CEng level.

The ICE provides lots of helpful guidance on its website which explains the experiential learning assessment process and submission requirements.

I made my experiential learning submission in December 2020, and found out I was successful in January 2021.

I now had the opportunity to demonstrate my IPD at CEng level and continue my route to chartership.

With that, 2021 was a very busy year!

Seize the day!

Today, I’m a chartered civil engineer and my route to chartership was by no means ‘traditional’.

But I believe that only you know when the time is right for you to sit your Professional Review.

When that time comes, the ICE provides many routes you can take to get there. And if you do want to become professionally qualified, there's definitely a route to suit your circumstances.

Engineering as a career has presented so many opportunities for me, personally and professionally.

My advice to anyone else considering engineering would be - do it. And as far as opportunities are concerned - grab them!

There are many different routes to ICE membership.

Find out more

  • Nicolla McCabe, senior project manager at NIRAS