Tom Newby MIStructE
Date published

26 January 2021

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Tom Newby MIStructE

Date published

26 January 2021

Tom Newby MIStructE talks about his experiences in the humanitarian and international development sector. Tom is the current Chair of the Institution's Humanitarian and International Development Panel.


Describe your current role

I am currently an Associate Director at Buro Happold in London. Until April 2019, I led the humanitarian technical team for CARE International UK (CIUK), which is part of the CARE International (CI) federation; one of the world’s largest international NGOs. I led a team of technical experts, including built-environment professionals, gender experts, resilience specialists and more.

They support CARE’s projects and operations around the world. I supported CIUK and CI in providing policy and operational leadership for emergency responses. Emergencies include natural hazards like earthquakes and complex conflict as in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

Describe your path to your current role

I completed my engineering degree in 2005 and initially worked for seven years for Buro Happold in Bath, London and New York. This allowed me to become a competent and Chartered engineer. While at university, and while working as an engineer, I undertook a number of volunteer roles for Engineers Without Borders UK.

This helped me learn about good and bad practices in international relief and development, and how the sector functioned. When the 2010 Haiti earthquake happened, Buro Happold let me take unpaid leave and I worked for the UK charity Tearfund in setting up their shelter response. I returned to Haiti in 2010 with Habitat for Humanity, before returning to the UK as an engineering consultant with Expedition Engineering.

At the end of 2013 CARE International advertised for a global shelter lead. Being an opportunity that was too good to miss, I applied, and was offered the role. I spent three and a half years leading CARE’s shelter team, including working on emergency responses in India, the Philippines, Nepal and elsewhere.

In 2017 I became CIUK’s Head of Humanitarian. This allowed me to take a wider view on emergencies than just shelter and meant I was involved in a much broader range of crises and responses.

In 2019 I once again returned to private sector structural engineering, re-joining Buro Happold. I now have two small children, which limits my ability to travel at will. This meant  it was a good time to keep my structural engineering skills alive and apply what I have learnt in the charity sector back in the UK private sector.

Are there any key things you did, or learnt, that helped you on your career path?

Becoming a Chartered engineer and getting experience of engineering before seriously pursuing a career in humanitarian work gave me a level of confidence in my engineering abilities. It also gave me a skillset that is rare in the sector which meant I had something real to offer.

Volunteering with EWB-UK in some substantial roles meant that I had the understanding of humanitarian principles and humanitarian work that made me credible in the eyes of humanitarian agencies. They quite rightly do not want to send untested people to work in the very difficult circumstances of a humanitarian emergency.  

My approach meant I could learn, and make mistakes, in the controlled and supported environment of being a graduate engineer in the UK. It would have been much harder doing this in the difficult and often lonely situation of being the only engineer in a humanitarian response.

What are your future career aspirations?

I am very much enjoying doing real, detailed structural engineering again, delivering projects and dealing with difficult engineering challenges. It is great to once more have sufficient resources and support to do a really good job, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts on projects.

I would still like to continue working in the humanitarian sector which, with all its challenges and frustrations, keeps me continually motivated and interested in the work I do. I hope to be able to use my expertise in humanitarian response at some point in the future again, perhaps when the kids have grown up.

What motivates you to work in relief/development?

The reason I was interested in being an engineer was that I wanted to have skills which would enable me to deliver something of clear and practical value to people. It’s the same reason I worked in humanitarian relief; I get great satisfaction from knowing my work improves people’s lives.

Who should become a structural engineer working in the humanitarian or development sectors?

As explained in the Institution’s guidance on working in humanitarian and development sectors, people who can go beyond the development of products and technical solutions and can understand and respond to the political, social, economic and environmental context in which they are working, can make good aid workers. Empathy, humility, strong ethical understanding and excellent ability to work across cultures are vital attributes.

 

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