Staff Spotlight: Tom Birch
How long have you been working for the company?
I started with Geotechnics straight from university in 2013, so I’ve been working here just over 4 years now. I’ve just signed up for a Masters degree in Engineering Geology, so I hope to be working for the company for the foreseeable future.
Where are you going to do your Masters?
I’ll be studying part-time in Leeds. I’ll be in Leeds for two days a week, and then working for Geotechnics in Chester three days a week.
"You come in and do a job that you enjoy, but you also have a good time and have people you trust. You know that if you’ve got a problem they’re going to be there for you"
How did you first get
involved in the industry?
As part of my second year of university, I had to do an industry based work placement. I got put onto Geotechnics and I did a six week placement here. I did a small project about slope stability and I did a presentation to summarise my experience at Geotechnics… I didn’t really think much more of it and then went back to university.
At the end of my third year, I was working at a supermarket and trying to get a graduate job. I was struggling due to a lack of experience, so I emailed the Health and Safety Manager of the time and asked if I could do another placement. They emailed back and said “Well, we’re quite busy actually. How do you fancy a job?” I couldn’t say no to that one!
What did you study at university?
I studied Natural Hazard Management and Geography at the University of Chester. There are a few links between the course and what we do at Geotechnics, but it’s not like I studied Geology or Engineering. It’s a bit of a strange one really, as you come into it from the side lines – rather than having been geared up to be a geologist. It’s given me a different perspective on things. Now I’m going to do my Masters in Engineering Geology at Leeds to build on that.
How has Geotechnics changed over the past four years that you’ve been here?
The company has grown and it’s got bigger! We’ve rebranded massively and there’s definitely more of a Health and Safety culture. Health and Safety has always been there in the background, but now it’s front and centre with a new GO SAFE campaign every few months.
We’ve had loads of big projects coming through and we’ve been nominated for Ground Engineering Awards for two years running. Our profile’s getting bigger and I think we’re growing in the industry.
What progress have you made since you joined Geotechnics?
When I started as a Graduate Engineer, I didn’t have a driving licence. I passed my test three months into the job. Before that, I was in the office typing up logs, inputting data and trying to get my head around what we do as a company.
When you first come out of university, you’ve generally not seen drilling rigs and you don’t understand drilling processes. It can be hard to get your head around it all! I spent a few weeks shadowing other engineers and I also spent a lot of time in our stores – sorting samples out and sending them off for testing. We had some large vibrocore jobs in at that time, which is when I really cut my teeth in logging and soil description. On the whole I’d say my first year was mainly going to sites, then coming back and typing the logs up. I couldn’t really get any more involved in the reporting back then.
Progressively my role has developed into managing bigger jobs. Since the end of 2014 onwards, I’ve been more involved with reporting, lab testing and project management. I am also the ISO 140001 representative for the office. I’d like to think I’ve now got a fairly healthy split of site and office work, and that I’ll become more office-based once I complete the Masters degree.
What have been some of your favourite projects to work on?
2015 was a good year for me in terms of site work. I worked on a big job up in Newcastle, which involved managing four cable percussive rigs. I also worked on a site investigation in Hull, managing two cable percussive drilling rigs with rotary follow-on to 50m in chalk. Both the company and I received very positive feedback from that job!
I’ve worked on a number of jobs for United Utilities too. Working offshore was the highlight for me, and then straight from there I went to Cumbria to work in Keswick on a large pipeline scheme. In 2016 I got my PTS (Personal Track Safety), which enables me to work on the rail network.
What was project management like?
It was difficult at first as you can’t rely as much on people in the office to solve your problems. If there is an issue, I’ve got to think on my feet and work out how to solve it. Obviously you can ring the office and ask for advice, but it’s your decision at the end of the day. It was an enjoyable challenge, and I think I did well on my first fully managed job. The client wanted everything finished for Christmas and we managed to complete it two days before the holidays, despite the horrendous weather and difficult drilling conditions!
What is a typical day like for you as an engineer?
Most days I get into the office around half 7 in the morning - mainly to beat the traffic because I commute from quite far out. I respond to my emails, and then it’s a mixture of reporting, typing in logs, preparing RAMS documents, organising lab tests and emailing clients.
When I’m due on site I turn up and do the job, whatever it may be. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of trial pitting and not much rig work. It can be quite tiring sometimes, but I do it for the job and I love it.
What’s the split between office and site like? Is it 50/50, or do you work in one place more than the other?
It’s mostly 50/50, but if we’re busy then I’ll run more jobs on site. If site work is under control, then I’ll be back in the office. I like to be utilised wherever I’m needed!
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I’d say my favourite part of the job is coming in each morning and seeing everyone in the office. To be honest, I don’t think it would be the same without them all. It’s different to other offices where everybody sits with their head down and there’s no real interaction and no real support network. Here, you come in and do a job that you enjoy, but you also have a good time and have people you trust. You know that if you’ve got a problem they’re going to be there for you.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the industry?
Have a driving licence, or at least be prepared to get one on very short notice! Especially when you’re starting out, a big part of the job is going to be driving.
Other than that, I’d say good communication is key and get stuck in!
What do you like to do outside work?
I have a black belt in karate and I teach twice a week. If I’m not out on site somewhere, I’ll go and train. It’s hard work, but it’s what I love to do!
Teaching is a big part of it as well. I’ve been doing it for six years now. When you see the smile on people’s faces when they pass a grading – they’re over the moon. It’s very rewarding.
What is a surprising fact that most people would not know about you?
I collect watches. I have 13 at the moment, which is far more than one man really needs!
I like watches with a good story to them. I’ve acquired several Soviet Russian watches. Because of the Cold War, they tried to make a divers watch that challenged the pieces that the Americans were giving to their military. The Americans were using Swiss-made watches, but the Russians had to make their own. The technology they used was very basic, but in my opinion it was far more effective at the job they were required to do.
I have an eclectic collection including a watch that was handmade in 1954, and several vintage Seikos. I can’t afford any of the high end brands just yet, but once I’ve finished my Masters I’m going to treat myself.
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