(Almost) All you wanted to know about consultancy – but were afraid to ask

Stuart Dryden – October 2016

On my first day in consultancy I didn’t even get a desk before I was despatched to join the company’s multi-disciplinary engineering team working in the client’s office on a new Wafer Fabrication Facility. As you might know (and I was soon to find out) this requires very low levels of vibration in the fabrication area and highly filtered laminar airflow provided by extremely large fans typically installed on the floor below. It’s therefore a demanding (and hence, interesting) noise and vibration problem, not only as regards the internal conditions in the fabrication facility, but also in the control of the environmental noise breakout from the 24/7 running on a site that was, in this case, close to existing housing.

I set off to London armed with my certificate that said I had an acoustics qualification, my calculator that could do logs (no PCs in those days), and a copy of Woods Practical Guide to Noise Control. The Director of Acoustics had actually lent me his copy because I hadn’t had the nerve to take in my own on my first day as a ‘consultant’!

I was soon introduced to the mystery/misery of Design Team Meetings and rapid design changes, which not only occurred before the implications of the previous change had been determined, but for which there was seldom sufficient information for an assessment in the first place. After a few weeks I even wondered whether I had made a mistake about going into consultancy. When I mentioned my concerns to my company’s Project Director, an experienced structural engineer, I was relieved to hear him say that it was the worst project he had ever worked on!

That taught me two things. First, that there was rather more to consultancy than acoustics, and secondly when in doubt – ask. Older colleagues might seem a bit like the Four Yorkshiremen in the Monty Python sketch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo) but are generally keen to help younger consultants rather than have them struggle with the difficulties they might have met in their own early days in consultancy.

These days it’s less likely that new or recent graduates would be as ill-informed about the profession as I was, since they might have undertaken a vacation work placement, and for some acoustics courses a whole year is spent on placement gaining practical experience of consultancy.

New or aspiring acoustic consultants can also get a bite-sized overview of the environment in which consultants operate by attending one of the IOA’s well-established ‘The Art of Being A Consultant’ meetings. This one-day session provides information on both acoustic and non-acoustic factors, providing guidance and insight into a wide range of those aspects of consultancy that are an essential companion to academic knowledge. The topics covered in the meeting are summarised below–spoiler alert!

Consultancies are commercial enterprises and so have to enter into contracts; they provide technical services and so must be competent, have regard to quality and consider risk and insurance. They will have a duty of care as regards the health and safety of others including employees, colleagues, sub-contractors, and members of the public and so need to provide method statements and risk assessments (and obtain more insurance). Consultants will have clients, maybe an employer and/or colleagues, and will probably need to work with professionals from other disciplines and organisations; in other words their working environment will involve many relationships both personal and professional. As with all relationships there are obligations and responsibilities but in the case of the consultant there are additional requirements and expectations as regards their behaviour and conduct.

As well as presentations about these necessary but perhaps less exciting aspects of the job, there will also be speakers who will tell you of the range of projects that you might be involved in and what it’s like day-to-day in real-world consultancy. There will also be advice on how to write up your work at the end of project.

And finally, although you might only just be starting in or considering entering the profession, there will be information on how to develop and maintain your professional standing over the course of your career in consultancy (as with pensions, the earlier you start the better).

Apart from the formal presentations, the day also provides opportunities to speak with the presenters in the breaks, as well as to compare notes with other young acousticians who are attending about their experience.

The IOA’s ‘The Art of Being A Consultant’ annual meeting is held in different parts of the country each; the most recent venues were in Southampton and Salford. The next meeting is expected to be in London in February next year. Full details will be on the IOA website in due course http://www.ioa.org.uk/events/. So do look it up and sign up.