This is a guest post contribution from Henry Sharples, a Chartered Mechanical Engineer with over 20 years’ experience working as a contractor in rail safety. If you are considering a contracting career we hope this might shed some light on a potential day in the life of a contractor…
Working in rail safety is all about ensuring the safe, smooth and sustainable running of the British rail and tram network. Ensuring the rail system is safe and resilient is a hugely important challenge for the industry.
Having contracted as a Mechanical Engineer in Rail Safety for over 20 years now, I have gained a wide variety of experience in several roles during my contracting career. I have worked in the UK and overseas for both small companies and large international firms. Each contract varies, but typically my day comprises undertaking safety assurance tasks and attending meetings.
When working on contract there’s a lot of pressure and deadlines must be met. For me, this is what makes contracting so rewarding. I’ve listed my typical working day below, including a rough timeline of events and how I manage my daily tasks to keep on schedule.
Each project will always be different, so if you embrace change, the contracting working style might be a good fit for you.
Here’s what my average day looks like:
I’ve worked on projects around the world, some with long commutes but my current contract is with a company only 30 minutes from where I’m based. So, I take the train at 7:30 to get in for 8:00.
Getting into the office at 8am means I beat the rush before the permanent staff start at 9. This gives me time to read and respond to emails and prepare for the day ahead. If you enjoy the same 9-5 routine every day, then contracting probably isn’t for you. One of my favourite things about contracting is the flexibility, particularly choosing my own working hours.
At my current contract I’m the project lead, working alongside a team of 5 permanent employees. Having pulled together a plan for the day, I start with a team briefing. This gives me the opportunity to communicate the priorities for the day, and our progress so far.
After a quick team briefing we get to work. My task for the day is compiling a safety case for a tram signal. Preparing safety cases is a hugely important part of my role, as they provide assurance that hazards and major incidents can be prevented and handled correctly, in this case, the signal functioning correctly, improving resilience against accidents. This is a large piece of work, so I set aside a few hours to complete it.
Safety case complete, I hand it over to document control, who conduct a thorough check.
Having worked on many different contracts in my contracting career I’ve found it’s really important to be able to work well with anyone and everyone. Contractors are constantly moving between different companies, so being able to quickly integrate into a workplace and get to know new colleagues is an important skill. You can enjoy contracting so much more if you are comfortable meeting new people and developing relationships.
I’m normally very busy but I always find it helps to take a quick break, no matter how much you have on. I usually pop out for half an hour at midday, and often find I have better focus in the afternoon following a short break away from the office or site.
In my experience, I have found that attending meetings is an essential part of most projects in my industry.
This afternoon is the weekly catch-up meeting which I spend half-an-hour preparing for. Here, the lead engineers from each team get together to talk through last week’s progress, this week’s priorities, and also to raise any issues.
Fully prepared, I attend the meeting where I report on my team’s progress and catch up on other teams’ work. Being a strong communicator is key in most contract roles. Make it your aim to communicate with the client and your permanent colleagues regularly so they know if the project is on track.
This afternoon I start work on a location hazard assessment. I have scheduled 3 days to complete this. In contract roles organisation is key, you need to be aware of the project timeline and order of deadlines, and prioritise those which are approaching, making sure to deliver on time. I always make sure I know exactly how long is required for tasks, and where I can allow a little extra time.
I find it useful to use time-tracking apps on my phone to make sure I’m on top of everything and don’t miss any important steps.
I will often work until 6, 7 or 8pm, but being a contractor I can be flexible, I’m leaving a little earlier than usual today so that I can catch a talk hosted by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Not only are these events great ways to make new contacts, they also help me keep my skills and knowledge updated.
If you want to charge competitive rates a contractor you’ve got to be proactive and be willing to learn. Networking and attending conferences is a great way of doing that. Like most industries the rail industry is constantly changing, and I like to make sure I’m at the forefront of that change and at the top of my contracting career.
Henry Sharples is a Rail Safety Engineer with over 20 years’ experience working in several varied roles. His experience covers working as an Independent Safety Assessor, Senior Railway Safety Project Manager, Lead Advisor and Safety Assurance Manager.