Build a career improving Britain's flood defences

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
April, 2016

Britain's rivers and coasts have suffered from unprecedented flooding in recent years. Discover how you could play a key role in enhancing flood defences across the country

The wintry rain storms that battered parts of the UK in December 2015 - causing untold damage to homes and communities - were unfortunately not isolated incidents.

Indeed, flooding has become such a prominent national issue that the government has had to put long-term measures in place to ensure that the country's flood defences are able to withstand similar events in future. This has opened up a range of opportunities to graduates considering careers in flood risk management (FRM).

'With an additional £2.3billion being invested by the government in more than 1,500 flood defence schemes by 2021, this is an exciting time to start a career in managing flood risk,' reveals Steve Biddle, deputy director, flood efficiency, resilience and skills at the Environment Agency, an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

The challenges ahead

For those looking to enter the environment sector in an FRM or water engineer role, there is no escaping the fact that floods have the potential to damage property and businesses, devastate lives, and topple infrastructure networks which serve to keep societies and local economies functioning.

Chris Kilsby, professor of hydrology and climate change at Newcastle University, states that 'flood risk management is one of the most significant engineering and societal challenges in the UK and worldwide'.

The problem is only set to heighten in the future. Chris warns that flood hazard seems to be increasing as climate change takes effect and, despite our technological advances, society seems ever more vulnerable to the impacts of flooding.

'Flooding is not just a "water problem" - it is also a "people problem" and requires a holistic approach, using science and engineering to address the human and socio-economic issues.'

Why choose flood risk management?

What is clear is that there's a strong need for firm decision making and coordinated action across public bodies to tackle this troubling situation. Anyone putting their knowledge of the water environment and FRM to good use will certainly find the effort extremely rewarding.

As Steve explains, those beginning their career as a flood professional will get to 'protect people and properties, enhance the environment and improve local communities'.

Careers with the Environment Agency

No matter what stage you are currently at - be it college, university, or the workplace - if you have the right skillset and application, there are various routes you can take into FRM.

One option is to follow a path that leads towards working for the Environment Agency. Steve says that they offer a rewarding career choice spanning many disciplines, including providing a paid-for undergraduate course and an accredited scheme for graduate engineers to really make a difference to society.

The two-year foundation degree in river and coastal engineering combines time studying at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) with work-based training at either the Environment Agency or a local authority. There are no tuition fees to pay and you'll receive an allowance of £1,000 per month during your training period (a maximum of 14 months).

The Environment Agency also offers a graduate training scheme for applicants with a Masters in civil engineering.

Study for a Masters degree

If you are eager to explore the possibilities of a postgraduate qualification in this specific field, the focused Flood Risk Management MSc at Newcastle University enables students to train as FRM specialists.

Chris explains how the course addresses the practical side of FRM, including planning, design, options for defence and risk management, flood forecasting and warning. The programme is informed by scientific and mathematical understanding of the processes of rainfall, rivers, coasts and catchments.

In terms of academic disciplines covered, the professional training encompasses hydrology, hydraulics, mathematics and computer modelling as well as project management, socio-economics and communication to the public.

Graduates go on to work in the UK and internationally for engineering consultancies, local and regional government, the Environment Agency and environmental companies, with some choosing to embark on further academic study.

As a leading institution for research, many graduates take the opportunity to continue their studies in FRM at Newcastle University's school of civil engineering and geosciences.

The value of professional accreditation

As you look to develop your career, guidance and training is available from industry organisations such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).

For instance, ICE, which has 88,000 members in over 160 countries, is an organisation dedicated to supporting civil engineers and technicians through the award of professional qualifications, industry training, knowledge sharing and networking.

Well aware that society's vulnerability to flooding is growing, ICE has a strong voice when it comes to influencing government investment in infrastructure. It is understood that while conventional flood defences help guard against inundation, communities cannot rely solely on fortifications. Society therefore needs to develop new and innovative ways of mitigating the effects of flooding.

A spokesperson for ICE describes how 'governments are looking to the civil engineers of today and tomorrow to design and create these innovative solutions - ultimately helping to protect our towns, cities and villages'.

Although this type of career - sitting right at the heart of FRM and resilience - is satisfying, it still requires expertise, experience and carries significant responsibility. So becoming a chartered engineer with ICE is certainly something to consider for your continuing professional development (CPD).

The ICE spokesperson adds, 'Achieving a professional qualification with ICE - becoming chartered - ratifies a civil engineer's professionalism, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an internationally recognised standard confirming to employers and clients that the engineer is technically and professionally competent and can make the right decisions.'