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Aiming high: how one young engineering leader is achieving her career goals

Career goals for civil engineers

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Civil Engineer Jo O’Brien

Civil engineering in Australia can be a diverse and challenging career. One young industry leader has been busy treading her own path – both at work and further afield.

After an eventful five years building infrastructure at Australia’s Top End, civil engineer Jo O’Brien’s idea of a holiday between jobs was a 1,200-kilometre trek in the Japanese countryside.

O’Brien had enjoyed her time in the Northern Territory working for Tonkin, and when the company offered her a job in Brisbane as Queensland Program Manager, she accepted.

With the opportunity for an extended break before starting her new job, O’Brien took a six-month sabbatical.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a circular walking route that weaves through varying terrain among 88 Buddhist temples in rural Japan. A tradition of the track is to carry osame-fuda, paper, or ‘nameslips’ on which walkers write their names, personal traits and sometimes their contact details. The slips are left at each temple visited or traded with fellow pilgrims.

When O’Brien traded osame-fuda with an 80-year-old man she met during her tour, she was astounded to learn he had finished the full pilgrimage 208 times.

“Theoretically, you could complete the route a maximum of about six times a year, due to weather and time constraints. He would have been continuously hiking for about 35 years,” she says.

For ten years, O’Brien has been making impressive rounds of her own, in Australia’s civil engineering sector. She has worked for two specialist engineering firms in two states and the Northern Territory.

Switching course

As a school leaver, O’Brien enrolled in engineering at the University of South Australia to challenge herself. But a year before graduation she almost gave it up to pursue art – her other major – instead.

“I was never really good at maths and just wasn’t interested any more. But my parents insisted that I finish engineering, so I did,” says O’Brien.

Graduating as a civil engineer didn’t stop her from exploring unrelated work. The attraction to her favourite overseas destination was as strong then as it is today, and O’Brien’s first job was teaching English to Japanese children. As much as she enjoyed living in Japan, the classroom environment became mundane after a while and O’Brien knew she needed more stimulating work.

“I could feel my brain turning to mush, so I decided to give engineering a go,” she says.

Joining the civil engineer career path

In 2008, O’Brien returned to Australia and joined Aurecon as an entry-level civil engineer in the urban development team. She helped plan road, water, electrical and sewage disposal systems for new residential and industrial land developments.

She relished the diverse, problem-solving work and realised she wanted to progress along a civil engineer career path after all.

Unfortunately, the team’s focus was shifted away from urban development to building design, so O’Brien decided to move on. She had taken a liking to drainage and stormwater management and in 2010 she joined civil engineering firm Tonkin, which has a good reputation in that specialty.

“It’s interesting to look at all the variables involved in stormwater management. Rainfall data, large-storm prediction, environmental factors. It’s technically quite challenging,” says O’Brien.

During her time at Tonkin, O’Brien has led technical studies including for floodplain mapping, water quality modelling, site contamination, water harvesting and aquifer storage and reuse. She also held the position of industry sector leader for water, which focussed on business development.

Career progression at the Top End

O’Brien’s next bold move was to the Northern Territory.

In 2013, when Tonkin needed a regional manager at the Top End, she raised her hand and got the job.

The main attraction was that a management position meant career progression. And it was a chance to plan local infrastructure that would make life easier for people living in remote communities for years to come.

“I’m not exactly detail orientated. I’m more of a planning person. I like to take a holistic view of how the various inputs you introduce affect the outcomes,” she says.

The Territory posting also offered irresistible engineering demands. Taking O’Brien’s core competency of stormwater management as an example; imagine doing stormwater planning in a territory that has wet and dry seasons that couldn’t be further apart in terms of rainfall?

Then, there were the general obstacles of remote engineering – a lack of local materials, the scarcity of contractors, legendary cyclones, and working conditions occasionally requiring the services of an onsite croc-spotter.

The role also allowed O’Brien to give back, by helping a community that survives despite the hardships of geographic isolation and a harsh climate.

As Tonkin’s regional manager, O’Brien was responsible for project, office and contract management as well as business development.

At one of her bigger Northern Territory projects, she was responsible for upgrading the 26-kilometre Pickertaramoor Road on Melville Island. It’s the only access connecting Tiwi College, a secondary boarding school in Pickertaramoor, to the town of Pirlangimpi. It was imperative the road stayed open during the three-month construction period so there would be no disruption to classes.

Aboriginal burial site on Melville Island, Northern Territory, Australia..

“Every day I was there I would see kids going by in the back of a ute on their way to school,” says O’Brien.

“It was nice to know that we were not only making the road safer for their future travels, but we were doing it in a way that didn’t disrupt their routine at the time.”

Aiming for career goals

When it was time for O’Brien to leave the Northern Territory for her Queensland promotion, she first switched the Top End’s humidity, mosquitoes and crocodiles for six months of walking in a cool and tranquil Japanese rainforest. The pilgrimage was an ideal refresher between two contrasting work environments that prepared O’Brien for a change of professional scenery.

Now settled at the Brisbane office, her task is to grow Tonkin’s presence and build the company’s reputation across Queensland. Tonkin has had a regional office in Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast for 10 years and the time has come to expand the business.

“We’re a little fish in a big pond up here,” says O’Brien.

As the person running the show, she has been more focussed on operations and business development than in the past. O’Brien insists that’s perfectly fine with her.

“I still want to be a CEO one day, but one with some work-life balance,” she says.

In addition to being a Japanophile, O’Brien is a runner and tries to do at least one marathon a year. At the rate she’s advanced in civil engineering, there’s nothing stopping her from running those marathons, turning Tonkin into a Queensland powerhouse, becoming CEO and walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage many more times.