From London to Hong Kong - via the Australian outback

The jet-setting story of Chris Burgess, a civil engineer and ground investigation specialist with HS2.

Chris Burgess has globetrotted from Hong Kong to Australia as part of his job - and he did a BTEC with work experience instead of A-levels, too. Learn more about his career journey.

Tell us about your job...

I am a Ground Investigation Delivery Manager for the High Speed Two railway – or HS2 for short. It’s a big project, linking London with Birmingham, then carrying on to other major cities, including Leeds and Manchester.

To design and build the railway’s tunnels and bridges, HS2’s engineers need all kinds of information about the ground they’re building on – or under! My job is to lead the teams that get that information. Ground Investigation (GI) has to do with geotechnics and engineering geology – in other words, how engineering and the ground affect each other. It helps us make the design of the railway safe and efficient; it’s an investment in understanding what we’re building on.

Although I work on the HS2 project, I’m actually employed by another company, called CH2M, which won the contract to do the ground investigation work. Over 40 people work for me – tunnellers, engineering geologists, rail experts and planners.

What are the best bits about your job?

For me, it’s all about the team. I’m very lucky to have a great, motivated team. I encourage everyone to ask questions, and not to think their question might be a stupid one. I think that really helps.

The other great thing is working with other teams – people who work on the environment, with different communities, in health and safety, and in planning. It’s really healthy to spend time with people who have very different jobs.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I loved art, technology and drawing, and I really wanted to be a draughtsman – someone who makes technical plans and drawings. So I left school in North London at 16, and that’s what I did! But I also enrolled on a BTEC in Civil Engineering. It opened my eyes to the big picture – the science behind making buildings and structures work. I eventually completed a degree in Civil and Structural Engineering at Sheffield University.

How did you get into doing this as your job?

Over the years, I’ve mostly stuck to civil engineering. After uni, I worked in Denmark for 6 months on secondment. They had wind farms over there, and lots of environmentally friendly power projects. I came back to the UK to work as a structural engineer (structural engineering is about the elements that keep structures up), mainly working at Twickenham Rugby Stadium. I then got more experience in civil engineering, like bridges and flood alleviation projects.

I eventually became a chartered civil engineer – it means you’re officially recognised for your experience and skills. This is really important in our industry. For the next 9 years I worked in Hong Kong on rail projects, designing new stations, right from a rough sketch to the finished building. It’s incredibly exciting to see something come to life in that way. I continued with my globetrotting and went to Australia, working mainly on mining projects, tunnelling and rail works in the outback. It was literally the middle of nowhere - sometimes we had to use helicopters to plan the route! Rather closer to home, I worked on Crossrail for three years and then the London Underground before joining HS2.

Did you overcome any difficulties to get to where you are?

People still think that you need A levels to go to university, but I proved you could take a different path. I was getting lots of work experience while doing my BTEC, which set me up really well for my career.

Tell us something we didn’t know about your career or the industry you work in. Surprise us!

Ground investigation - and civil engineering especially - can be a really international and varied business. You’re down a tunnel one week, working on an international sports stadium the next.

Any top job hunting tips to share?

Try to get experience under your belt as soon as you can. It gives you a taste of what the job’s like, and you will know early on if you really want to do it. It could be a sandwich year, a summer placement or just a few days’ work experience. It will also give you a massive head start when you start applying for jobs.

More about careers with HS2

Are you interested in creating real change? Using technology to put the passenger in control? More than just a railway, HS2 is about unlocking potential, and making better connections between people and places. It’s about finding new skills, growing new industries, and starting thousands of people on a rewarding career. This takes ideas, and it takes creativity. If you want to help build the country’s biggest mega project, and get Britain moving in all the right directions, HS2 could have the career for you.

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