Life at AECOM as an early careers professional 

One of the world’s most trusted infrastructure consulting firms, AECOM partner with clients to solve the world’s most complex challenges, while committing to supporting their staff to build their career by providing strategically focused learning and development initiatives, encouraging new ideas and providing professional development opportunities at all levels. Coastal Engineer Harriet Ridler shares her experience of life so far within the company.

Like many students in our field, I wanted to do a degree in civil engineering because I wanted to make a difference. I had first-hand experience of the importance of infrastructure, growing up in a town vulnerable to coastal storms and the impact storm damage had on its transport network. So, the University of Southamptons Civil and Environmental Engineering degree course immediately appealed to me, offering the opportunity to delve deeper into the technical areas of engineering with a focus on climate-related issues. Being able to apply my engineering knowledge and think creatively to solve some of society’s most pressing challenges was also a significant hook. But, when you actually start working, how much difference do you make?

FCERM project

Almost three years into my job as a coastal engineer with AECOM, I’m immersed into a project that is genuinely using both my creativity and technical expertise to develop a solution to an issue that is of huge importance to the community it impacts.

I’m currently heavily involved in designing the Langstone Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) project at on the South Coast. Due for completion in 2026/7, the project aims to provide enhanced resilience against tidal flooding for the village of Langstone and A3023, the only road on and off Hayling Island – a small island off the south coast in Hampshire.

I grew up in Dawlish, a coastal town nestled in the southwest of England. Ten years ago, a huge storm resulted in the collapse of its seawall— a key structure, originally designed by Brunel, which supports the only railway line into Plymouth and Cornwall. As a secondary school student, my daily rail commute was disrupted, and from my replacement bus window I saw the havoc wreaked by the storm firsthand, but also the repairs in action. Looking back, I can see that the emergency repairs and reinforcement efforts, including better fortifying the wall against future climate-related challenges, were a catalyst for my passion in coastal engineering.

The Langstone site presents significant constraints and difficulties, as it is boarded by Langstone and Chichester Harbours, which are both locally and internationally recognised for their environmental importance. This means there is a mandated 10 per cent net increase in biodiversity for any land take across the scheme. Consequently, any new construction must be low impact and coexist with deteriorating existing structures, requiring careful and sympathetic consideration in design and construction scheduling. Moreover, the village holds considerable cultural significance, lying within a conservation zone and featuring eight listed buildings, which have heavily influenced the appearance of the scheme. It's been a challenging site where creative thinking and innovation have been key.

Stakeholder engagement is key

In developing the design, one of the most unexpected but rewarding elements of the role has been the stakeholder engagement. It’s not something you’re traditionally taught as part of civil engineering courses, but it’s extremely important. My role has involved presenting and answering queries on the technical design to the community and helping them understand the key drivers for the project. What’s been most rewarding with the community engagement is seeing the level of public support go from below 50 per cent at concept design stage to above 90 per cent at the final stage of design.

The scheme design, consisting of 1km of continuous flood defences, brings the standard of protection up to a 1:200-year protection against still tidal water levels. Alongside the new defences, the scheme also incorporates new drainage and recommends property-level resilience measures to provide additional protection to the front-line properties from overtopping spray and above-design flood events. What I’ve enjoyed most about the project is seeing the design come together, with a solution that, in my opinion, blends in and respects the unique, historical setting of the village and promotes improved access and public realm design alongside the flood protection. The whole project has been a great experience and I feel I’ve played a central role in its development. When it’s built, it will make a significant difference to people and businesses within Langstone village and on Hayling Island.

The Freedom To Grow philosophy

Alongside the project work, starting at AECOM also meant a transition from student life into the workplace. The support I have had from my team in this transition has been unparalleled. Being on the early careers path at AECOM has provided me with the invaluable opportunity to develop softer skills alongside my technical skillset and connect with similar-minded individuals. My continual professional development has also benefitted from having access to a global network of technical experts and knowledge sharing sessions. What’s also been great is using AECOM’s Freedom to Grow philosophy, which enables me to balance my time between project work, learning opportunities, extracurricular activities such as STEM activities, and home-life commitments.

I also had the opportunity to attend the CIWEM Flood and Coasts Conference in June. AECOM were primary sponsors for the Early Careers Zone, and I played host for the zone sharing my experiences and engaging primarily with university students. What I enjoyed most about the conference myself was the opportunity to have face to face conversations with industry experts and learn about emerging methods, products and ideas which may advance the sector and offer better climate resilience. Returning to work and being able to share these ideas amongst peers and incorporate the learning into my designs has been fulfilling.

So, what have I learnt? Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown. Even if you don’t enjoy that element of work you will still learn something and it all adds to experience, but more often than not, I have loved the new experiences.

Author: Harriet Ridler, Coastal Engineer - AECOM

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