From Accra to London via a stint in the army and two spells at university, tunnel apprentice Eric Amponsah's journey into engineering is far from a conventional one.
Many of the people working on the Tideway project building the super sewer will have spent time in a range of sectors and job roles throughout their working life, but it’s unlikely anyone’s path has been as varied as Eric’s.
“When I was young, I really wanted to be a policeman,” Eric says. “Then, as I got older, I started to think more and more about the idea of joining the army, so that’s what I did as soon as I came to England. I liked the routine and the discipline, and I also liked the idea of helping people. My parents didn’t really like the thought of me being in the military, but I was passionate about it and they knew that.
“I served in the army for five years before I had a medical discharge, and my immediate thought was to go back to university and study for a qualification in healthcare, which I was hoping would eventually lead to a degree in forensic science. I did that for a few months but when my son was born, I knew it wasn’t for me, so I dropped out.”
Eric, who is currently based at Chambers Wharf site Bermondsey, admits that he was at something of a loose end before discovering he could utilise his love of the outdoors, his desire to benefit people’s lives and his eagerness for routine to help create London’s super sewer.
He learned of the Tideway project through the contracting agency Reliable, that works with various construction and infrastructure projects to get people into work and help them develop the skills they will need to forge a successful career.
“As soon as I heard about the opportunity to become an engineering apprentice I was interested. It was a great feeling when I was told I had been successful because it’s something that I really care about. Being given the chance to give back and help clean up the Thames was too good to ignore.
“I live in London with my wife and son, so the sewer matters to me personally, but also to millions of other people. I’m proud to be working on a project that’s building something for future generations to enjoy.”
Being part of a team was an attractive proposition for Eric as was the opportunity to interact with complex pieces of machinery and kit, enabling him to get below ground and see how to a tunnel is built from start to finish.
“It’s a bit of a cliché maybe, but every day really is different. We’ve always got a new task to achieve and a new milestone to hit, so there’s no time to sit still. I’m learning all the time and that’s exactly what I want. I’m overawed daily by the size of the machines and the scale of the shaft. It’s amazing what we are doing, and it’s fascinating watching the progression and knowing that I’m part of it.”
Tideway has a clear focus on health and safety, something Eric has been very aware of since day one.
“I think that a key part of remaining safe is being able to rely on the people around you. My teammates all gave me guidance when I was just getting started and told me what I should and shouldn’t do. It was clear from the outset that they had the right attitude when it came to safety, and that made me confident that I was surrounded by people I could trust.”
As well as the long-term goals of the project and the opportunity to work in challenging conditions, it is the bond Eric has built with his team that he believes makes his role so special and makes him excited about the prospect of heading to site every day.
“It’s more than just a team, and that has to be the case when you’re working on something of this nature. Everyone needs a helping hand every now and again and knowing that the people working by your side are dependable is massively important.”
Though he has only officially been working on the project since April 2019, Eric is thrilled by what he has learned and the variety of things he has experienced. Tideway has helped him to take the first steps in what will undoubtedly be a long and productive career in engineering.
“For anyone who is considering being an apprentice I would say absolutely go for it. The classroom isn’t necessarily the best place to learn, as I’ve discovered, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people. Being able to interact directly with equipment and people, and gain first-hand experience, knowledge and understanding, is the ideal educational environment for me.
“I love being part of Tideway, and it’ll be amazing being able to tell my son that I helped clean the river, and did my bit to make London a better place to live.”