Ewan – Energy Consultant
Works for: Practical Action
What attracted you to the job?
Lots of reasons. I have been working in international development for a number of years and found it to be fascinating and enjoyable. The job at Practical Action promised to give me the opportunity to work on energy projects, to find low-carbon energy solutions for developing countries throughout the world using sustainable resources and to share that knowledge with many others. I wanted a job where I felt the skills I had developed could be put to good use and where I could really make a difference to people’s lives.
What does you typical day involve?
I have only been in the job for a month so a typical day is a bit hard to define just yet! A lot of my day is spent responding to queries around the world on various projects. I’m involved in a project in Madagascar where we are trialling the use of ethanol produced from a local resource (sugarcane) as a fuel for stoves. It’s more sustainable that the wood and charcoal that people currently use and provides a much safer, cleaner fuel. The project involves input from people in Canada, Germany and the UK, and I help identify problems and find common solutions using their knowledge and experience.
What gives you the most job satisfaction?
Working with other people from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, and knowing that together we can find technological solutions that have the potential to change the lives of thousands of people in the developing world. In the Madagascar project for example the use of ethanol will dramatically reduce the amount of smoke related health problems and the deforestation of pristine rainforest.
What do your friends and family think about your job?
They are all really interested, and some a bit jealous that I get to see more of the world than they do! My three brothers all work in conservation so they are particularly interested in the projects.
Tell us more about your environment in terms of work life balance.
Practical Action is a really good company to work for in that respect. Everyone here is passionate about the work they do and take it seriously but at the same time they realise the importance of having fun. At lunch time I can sit and chat to my colleagues in the staff room; go for a run and even learn Spanish! There is also a group of musicians here who get together every now and then, including the chief executive.
How did you get where you are today?
I took maths, biology, geography and economics A-levels at school, and then went on to take a degree in geology at Edinburgh University. After a brief spell in Australia, I spent two years working on a gold mine in central Asia. I got involved in an outreach programme that ran water and sanitation projects in poor villages. This work made me realise I wanted to change the direction of my career. I went to South Africa and took a PhD in Geotechnical Engineering, after which I worked for an engineering consultancy managing projects throughout southern Africa focusing on poverty reduction, including work in slum redevelopment. From there I went to Haiti and managed several development projects, and it was while working in poor isolated villages that I really understood the need for rural energy solutions for the poor. I returned to England and worked for a renewable energy charity before starting my current job at Practical Action.
Did the subjects you studied after the age of 16 prove useful in the job you are doing now?/any subjects you wish you’d studied?
The one that surprised me was economics. I didn’t really think it would be much use but in development work the economics of a project, and managing budgets is vitally important and my economics A-level helped me understand that. I do wish I had taken physics as it would have given me a better understanding of the more technical issues of energy that would be useful for the work I do now.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of following in your path?
- One of the most important things to do in deciding the right field of work is to talk to as many people as you can about it, parents, friends, teachers etc. Also use the internet to find out as much information as you can.
- Take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way to broaden your experience, even if you are not sure it’s your ‘thing’. I ended up teaching English in Turkey at one point and loved it! When you go to Uni consider joining Engineers without Borders or another voluntary organisation. It’s fun and a good way to meet people.
- One other bit of advice I would give is to think carefully before gong straight into HE. Going straight to Uni is right for some people but not everyone, so don’t feel pressurised to do it. Doing voluntary work overseas or getting an internship with a company will really help you decide what it is you want to do. It’s much easier to change direction after your A-levels than after your degree.
How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field and how much can this be expected to rise?
The starting salary for a geotechnical engineer is typically £25,000 – £30,000 and this can rise dramatically with experience. Working in international development pays quite well – not as well as other professions – but the benefits of working in international development go way beyond the salary.
What out of office hours pursuits light your fire? What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you have?
I’m a member of a local rowing club; I enjoy salsa dancing and play the guitar and violin with friends.