Thornton Tomasetti

collage of bridge, sports stadium, tower and dam
Images by Jeddah Economic Company/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, Tyler Casey/, AELTC/Thomas Lovelock, and Thornton Tomasetti.

Thornton Tomasetti is the structural engineer behind such projects as Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, the new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Wimbledon No. 1 Court roof in London, and New York City’s Hudson Yards development, including the Vessel interactive sculpture and Shed arts centre.

The firm’s applied science practice in Scotland performs both analytical and physical dynamic shock testing and analysis, utilising its proprietary air gun technology and state of the art software tools.

Sarah and Jack, graduate apprentices

This case study looks at two graduate apprentices at Thornton Tomasetti. We’ll hear from Sarah Whyte and Jack Wilson who are both first year students on Heriot-Watt's Engineering Design and Manufacture programme.

We’ll also hear from Gavin Colliar, who is the workplace mentor for Sarah and Jack.

Please explain how you found the graduate position and what you were doing before it

Jack: After completing my HNC in mechanical engineering at Fife College, I was looking for some sort of degree that I could complete whilst still being able to work. I came across the GA programme online whilst doing so.

What were the benefits of the programme that attracted you the most?

Jack: Because the programme is 20% classes and 80% work-based learning, the programme is almost tailored to my employer’s needs.

The programme is completely flexible to how busy a company is. Although there are some set deadlines, most are flexible.

Sarah: What attracted me most is being able to put work-based actives towards my learning and grading.

Please describe what you do and how you cope with learning new skills whilst studying towards a degree

Jack: I’m currently employed as a design draughtsman. I’m involved in the design of frames for shock that interface with clients’ equipment, taking into consideration area available, frequencies, stiffness, welding and fastening. All of these are backed up using software and hand calcs.

So far, I’m coping well with learning new skills as I have various people around me who can help. It can nonetheless be slightly stressful at times trying to balance work and university life.

Sarah: I’m working as a trials technician. This means being a part of the planning process and setting sensors for shock and vibration testing. Once I have captured the data, I process and analyse it and get it ready for the customer’s report.

Before and after trials, I carry out various checks and testing of all equipment and instruments to ensure they are within spec and tolerances. 

I have found the demands of the degree along with work extremely challenging. The support and encouragement of my employer and lecturers has helped to keep me on target and motivated during these difficult times.

What is your proudest achievement to date in your role?

Jack: Being promoted in October 2019 to Design Draughtsman allowed me to take on more responsibility and start to learn the engineering side of work in more depth. Taking on this role meant I was trusted more within the organisation and showed my commitment to the team.

Sarah: Being able to step up during a major structural dynamic trial programme to take leadership of the instrumentation department. With over 60 channels connected to many sensors with various sample rates and time durations, I ensured that good-quality data was captured for all channels. The customer was elated with the smooth running of the trial and successful data capture.

What are your future career hopes now compared to if you had done a traditional undergraduate programme?

Jack: I aspire to be a design engineer within Thornton Tomasetti and perform FEA analysis.

If I had gone down the traditional route after my apprenticeship, I would’ve had to go to university to complete a full-time degree taking 4-5 years and then be trained up on a job. Whereas the way I have done it means I am doing on-the-job learning whilst still having the 20% uni to complete my qualifications.

Sarah: I will continue to develop my skills, and this will help towards promotion in the company to an engineer role.

Can you outline what support and encouragement your employer has given you in your GA journey?

Jack: My employer has various engineers of different backgrounds, who are always keen to help where possible. More recently, I have also been given work tasks that will help me complete the work-based learning part of my course.

Sarah: I have a Friday off, which allows me to attend classes and concentrate solely on my studies.

How would you sum up your overall experience of the graduate apprenticeship programme?

The graduate apprenticeship programme has been tough but rewarding so far.

Sarah: The past year with the pandemic has been challenging. Having no physical attendance at the university has made learning much harder. However, the lectures have adapted and have supported us well. I have found the recording of the lecture extremely helpful as I can revisit them at any time.

Gavin Colliar, workplace mentor

Can you provide some background to your company?

Thornton Tomasetti Defence Ltd (TTDL) is part of the global Thornton Tomasetti organisation. Founded in 1949 in New York City, Thornton Tomasetti optimizes the design and performance of structures, materials and systems for projects of every size and level of complexity.

We are an independent organisation of engineers, scientists, architects and other professionals who collaborate from offices worldwide to help clients achieve their goals.

TTDL is part of the applied science division, which has for over 65 years provided its expertise to engineer practical solutions to structural and mechanical problems. We use our expertise in mechanics, structures, materials, acoustics, stochastics and computational simulations to solve complex problems.

Why did the company decide to go down the graduate apprenticeship route?

In order to address our recruitment needs and development of staff into the next generation of engineers, we were required to look at alternative routes other than just the traditional hiring of graduates.

What are the key reasons why the GA model suits your business?

The on-the-job learning and work-based studies help ensure that the graduate will have not only a broad engineering experience but also the key skills that are essential for our business.

What appealed to you most about Heriot-Watt as the GA provider?

What appealed to us was the fact the University is local to our Edinburgh site, its international reputation in the field of engineering, and that historically we have benefited from assistance in some collaborative projects.

In what way has the candidate made a contribution to the workplace or business?

Jack and Sarah have and continue to make a considerable contribution to the success of the trials team in being able to deliver a great service to our clients.

How do you feel about the apprentices' futures? 

They are heading in the correct direction and will grow into a more senior role within the company with the correct training and support.

Would you happily employ another graduate apprentice in the future? 

Absolutely. So far, the feedback on the course has been good despite the current COVID restrictions. We will continue to look at a number of ways to grow our team, which will include this route as well as traditionally hiring graduates from a more conventional degree qualification route.