A day in the life of a: Young Specialist Civil Engineer running multi-million, global projects.

On the coast of the Gulf of Lion, near sunny Marseille, a brand-new home is under construction. This house will accommodate a husband and wife, in addition to their first baby due at the end of the month.

Working on the house is Emmanuel Gallet, a 32-year-old Specialist Civil Engineer from Marseille. He is also one of the residents due to move into the upcoming property.

The young engineer has already managed multi-million euro, international projects. Less than a decade ago, Emmanuel was offered to help remodel VSL UK (a specialist construction company).

“We started from scratch, we had everything to do. At the beginning it was only me and him (Country Director at VSL) we were only a small team and by the end of the 3 years we were 60 people, and we were doing 20M to 25M euros turnover. It was a really valuable experience, really amazing.”

But it’s important to bear in mind that Emmanuel is just an ordinary person, with goals and aspirations, a chirpy grin and personality, who loves the smaller things in life too, like running and going out with his friends. Below, he offers us valuable insight on his journey.

What is a Specialist Civil Engineer?

In the UK, a common misconception associated with Specialist Civil Engineers is that there are very complex, mathematical and scientific components linked to the job. But Emmanuel goes on to tell me that actually, it’s a little bit different in France.

“We’re responsible for a project with objectives, a budget, and keeping a well-defined schedule. So, we manage the project like a small business. There are a lot of aspects. We have the technical sector, management, human resources, administrative and so on.”

“We need to understand everything that is going on, so you need to have a scientific, technical, and mathematical understanding, but I don’t ever look into the details of the calculations. I look at the documents, I have an idea of the basic order of the most important things, but I can’t re-do the calculations that are in there because it’s not my job.”

He concludes, “I would say that it’s a mix of being a Project Manager and Entrepreneur”.

His current position.

Officially, the engineer has only been working in senior roles for the last 4 years. He was previously a Site Engineer, and his current position is still very new to him having been there for less than 6 months. He is currently working with Freyssinet France, a specialist contractor for repair and strengthening works.

Though his previous job was diverse and full of adventure, he goes on to tell me that there was a lot of moving around, managing multiple sites; typical for someone in a senior position. He tells me, “I was spending nights at hotels and not going home. It wasn’t possible”.

Whilst at VSL London, the projects he was managing were worth between 3M to 10M euros. Now, they range between 500K, to 1M or 2M euros, “the projects are a little bit smaller but there are more”.

“I’m happy of the recent change because I’m moving less so I’ll be able to rest for a bit which is a great change. I’m really happy.”

Where does his story begin?

Engineering wasn’t always Emmanuel’s dream. When he was younger his ambition was to become an architect – funnily enough, he’s not far from one now with the new house – but the studies were long, at least half a decade, and the sector unreliable.

“It was risky. So, my parents redirected me to construction and voila! Here we are. I love it, I love this career. It’s multidisciplinary. All the sites are different and interesting. It’s very rich and we (team) never get bored, and there’s lots of exciting twists.”

Before his career began, the engineer studied a BTS (Brevet de Technicien Supérieur) in France – a French national postsecondary diploma. He later went on to complete internships and eventually landed his first work experience at VINCI construction in Paris.

He worked on the tunnels for the Parisian Rapid Transit System, whilst also studying at Arts et Métiers, in Aix-En-Provence – an engineering school recognized for leading in the fields of mechanics and industrialization.

“I was travelling doing 1 month in Aix, 1 month in Paris, 1 month in Aix, 1 month in Paris. I met my partner there, she was also studying with me at the engineering school in Aix and at the end of this period we decided to move abroad, we went to London.”

The engineer also did a VIE – Volontariat à I’International en Entreprise Programme – which are essentially international professional assignments for young French people to go do internships abroad.

Emmanuel goes on to say that as you progress in your career, you should expect to change position every 3, or so, years. “We spend around 3 years at the beginning as a beginner Site Engineer on a building site to gain some experience.”

“Then after 3 years when we reach an intermediate stage, we’ll maybe manage a small building site or start project managing. Then it’s at the end of another 3 or 5 years that we take on more serious responsibilities.”

What happens in the day?

As we continue our conversation over video call, he swings side to side in his chair, cheerful and smiling, and I can see he’s sat in what looks like an improvised office room on a construction site.

Basically a white box, with a small window, a black chair and desk. But this is normal for big projects, offices are usually based on site, near the site, or on the street. This is where Emmanuel spends the majority of his time now.

“In the morning, I go to the office or to the building site. I start by checking emails and check priorities for the day. I have to manage, like everyone; problems to solve in the week or in the coming month, so short and long term problems. But because our job is also construction based, we still have problems that arise during the day that need solving quickly.”

“So, in general someone might ring me in the morning, or during the day, with little concerns that can be resolved rapidly, as well as long term issues. That involves ringing my teams or ringing the people that they work with on the building site. So, I’m on the phone a lot, with lots of emails and loads of computers with excel and word documents to complete.”

Emmanuel deals with high-end clients which means there is a lot of documentation to keep on top of. He mentions there is also a strict reporting aspect to the job, whereby he must always ensure to properly manage the budget and site planning, “both of which require regular follow-ups”.

Depending on the size of the project, you might only have 1 Specialist Engineer onsite, typically for projects worth between 1M to 2M. Any projects worth more, you’ll find an entire team.

What does it take to be the best?

Emmanuel explains that in order to be a successful Specialist Civil Engineer, it’s important to have an overarching understanding on how to operate building sites, “it’s not just dealing with the immediate concerns of the building site, but the surrounding environments too”.

“There’s building site teams, but also clients, budgets, financials and so on. So, definitely having comprehensive vision, but also always remaining transparent with other stakeholders and people on site to try and create a good team spirit.”

The objective is to sustain efficiency, “with a good atmosphere, and that everyone helps push the project in the right direction to reach that goal”.

He tells me that the role is heavily relationship based, with lots of human interaction. Being able to lead a team with enthusiasm, paired with an empathic approach is crucial. “The technical side of things is important but not too much because we can always find a solution. It’s rare that we can’t resolve technical problems.”

“But all the problems we can’t resolve are usually financial or people problems, so usually people that don’t get along. So, I would say that the most important thing is being able to make people work together in a team, ensuring that everyone is working to the best of their abilities to run a smooth operation.”

The differences being in a senior role.

At the beginning of you career, you will typically work on site as a young Works Manager or Works Engineer, spending the majority of your time on the field managing a team. “Then little by little, you find yourself in the office a bit more. Now for example, I do 1 or 2 days per week where I travel to see the construction site but the rest of the time I’m in the office. It’s not too bad.”

The young engineer explains that the biggest difference stepping into more senior roles is not only more time in the office, but also the number of projects you’re assigned to manage, “at the beginning you work mainly on one specific project, or sometimes are even assigned a specific task, then with that experience you’ll maybe be assigned a global task, or a bigger project, or lots of different projects!”

“At the moment I have 4 or 5 engineers working with me. Each have 3 or 4 small projects, so I have a panel of projects to manage so that’s the biggest difference. Lots of different projects and clients to handle.”

In ten years’ time, “there’s a whole other dimension regarding the commercial side – sales, and prospecting – that I haven’t seen before which I would like to experience in the future”.

Contrary to public understanding, to be an outstanding Specialist Civil Engineer you don’t need to be Euclid of Alexandra, or Johann Heinrich Lambert; you need to be a confident leader, with an interest in public relations.

Running a successful site means keeping the peace between what can be, hundreds of different people, and ensuring that everything is carried out with your team’s best interest at heart and maintaining a common goal everyone is willing to work towards.

“Everyone comes to see us. Workers want to speak to us, the people who do all the drawings and calculations, clients, suppliers. I suppose we’re kind of the centrepiece of this large group, like a conductor almost.”

So don’t be disheartened if you’re struggling to keep up with the mathematics at first, if you’re a natural leader, that’s enough to push you to the top.

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