QUIRKY ENGINEERING JOBS… A day in the life of: Development consultant, Arup
Debra Lam, sustainable development consultant at engineering consultancy Arup, talks to The Telegraph about the different careers available in the green economy. She is not a trained engineer by background, but works with professionals from all over the world at one of the biggest engineering employers.
What do you do exactly?
I’m a senior policy consultant at engineering consultancy Arup. I advise different organisations about how to follow ‘low carbon’ principles and introduce climate-resilient strategies. A large chunk of my work involves working with international governments and big banks on the wide-ranging ‘green’ agenda, from water and health, to transport, waste and education.
What's your background?
I obtained a Bachelor of science in foreign service at Georgetown University in America. I was always interested in international affairs and politics and wanted to become a diplomat. I also spent time working for the local, state and federal government, as well as a not-for-profit organisation doing socially responsible investment.
How did you get into engineering?
I realised that if I wanted to make social change and influence policy, I needed to educate myself further. So I did a Masters in public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable development. I got a strong foundation in analysis and critical thinking, which helps me to tackle complex socio-economic-political issues.
How did you land a job at Arup?
I interviewed several people from Arup for my final-year thesis on sustainable development and was lucky enough to be offered a job at the consultancy’s offices in London after my degree. I started as a consultant, almost four years ago now. After a couple of years, I worked in the Hong Kong office on a number of projects in East Asia, including climate change strategies in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Manila in the Philippines, and Ningbo in China. It was a fantastic opportunity.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the opportunities to work with governments across the world. I know that sustainability issues can seem esoteric to businesses and ordinary people, so I often need to explain why the green agenda matters in terms of its impact on every-day life, such as transport, health or education. It is rewarding to know that you are raising awareness and empowering communities to make a difference.
What's a typical day like?
It’s normal for me to communicate with people from all over the world. Sometimes, the time difference can be quite amazing. I send draft pieces of work over to other regions before leaving at night and by the time I am back the next morning, another revision is in my inbox.
Just like everyone else, I go through emails and read up on industry news. It’s a profession where you never stop learning - I always have to be up to date on my reading as someone may reference a specific project and ask for my views at any time. A lot of my time is also spent on project management, research and writing.
Describe one of the best days you've had at work.
We recently finished a project in Ho Chi Minh City. I led the different teams from Ho Chi Minh, London, and Hong Kong to develop climate change strategies for water resources and management in the city. We were in Ho Chi Minh three times and met with 20 different departments when developing the report. We organised a great workshop with a high level of attendance by senior city officials, who understood the issues.
Describe the worst day you’ve had at work.
The fact sustainability isn’t going to be achieved overnight can be frustrating. Sometimes we need to manage expectations and go a step backward in order to go two steps forward. The days I forget about this are not the best days.
What's it like working in your sector?
You work with inspirational professionals across different fields and are trusted to deliver solutions which affect the lives of communities and people. The great thing is that at Arup I feel supported in my role and have some great mentors and leaders. I am fortunate to work with an amazing set of peers who support each other, are extremely skilled and experienced in their respective fields, and care about you and delivering project success together.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to work in this sector?
You need to be passionate, hard working, adaptable, and not afraid of failure. You also need to be ready to keep on learning throughout you career. I am always learning from my peers, the local governments I work for, literature, classes, etc. I would never claim to be an expert at what I do – not even after doing this for another 30 years.
What are the related jobs in this sector?
There isn’t a set career path – it depends on each individual. You really can forge your own way. I have been very lucky, but the work is not done. I have experience in Europe, East Asia and America but I am still keen to improve my knowledge on Africa and Latin America. I hope as I continue to learn, manage challenging projects, meet and work with amazing people, I will continue to make a difference.