As most engineers know, obtaining a Professional Engineer (P.E.) license is a daunting and difficult task.
From hours of endless studying to maintaining an already demanding workload to ensuring enough time with one’s family, passing the P.E. exam seems like a goal always out of one’s reach. Now, imagine not only studying, working, and balancing a family, but also doing so in a foreign country.
That’s exactly what British Army Captains Matthew Fry and Ben Hancock are doing while at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District.
Fry, a civil engineer, and Hancock, a mechanical and electrical engineer, arrived from the United Kingdom in February and April 2012, respectively, filling the only two foreign officer slots in the entire Corps of Engineers as part of a 16-month training with industry.
“It’s a unique program that British officers are required to participate in if they are to obtain their Professional Engineering license,” said Col. Trey Jordan, Baltimore District commander. “The Corps has a partnership with the Royal School of Military Engineering, and we here at the Baltimore District get the unique opportunity to host two officers as they complete requirements of a Professionally Qualified Engineer (PQE) course.”
The officers’ training began with seven months of intensive study in Chatham, Kent, the home of the Royal Engineers.
During those seven months they studied masters-level contract law, structural analysis, drainage and road design, estimating and project management through a very fast-paced course.
“The course is essentially cramming more than a year’s worth of study into seven months,” said Fry.
After completing the course, Fry and Hancock travelled to the United States for the Baltimore District assignment. The tour consists of 10 months at a field site and six months at the Baltimore District headquarters.
“We get a chance to get our boots dirty and then we move on to the district headquarters to get exposed to the office side of engineering, particularly the financial aspects which we have limited exposure to back in the U.K. military,” said Fry.
Fry spent his first 10 months at the Harrisburg Area Office, while Hancock started at Fort Detrick, Md.
During the time with the Corps of Engineers, the British Army requires Fry and Hancock to meet 15 developmental objectives as part of the PQE course, including identifying engineering problems and implementation solutions.
“It’s possible for multiple objectives to be fulfilled by larger projects such as Poplar Island,” said Fry, whose contributions to a new, cost-saving, hydraulic structure for Poplar Island will be the focus of his thesis due in May.
Most of the objectives remain the same for Fry and Hancock, but some of them are specialized.
“A few objectives are tailored to enhance our knowledge in our stream (field) of engineering,” said Hancock, who fulfilled many of his electrical and mechanical engineering objectives while working at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the Steam Sterilization Pump (SSP) on Fort Detrick.
Corps of Engineers employees recognize the talents and contributions of the Royal Military Engineers. “Although the PQE course is primarily intended to afford masters-level engineering experience to the best and brightest of the British Army, it is the U.S. Army who truly profits from this program,” said Tony Marcell, supervisory engineer at Fort Detrick, who has worked with three rotations of Royal Engineers.
Hancock continues this tradition of excellence during his work at USAMRIID, Marcell said.
“Capt. Hancock, like his predecessors, integrated well with our best engineers to solve many complex mechanical problems,” he said. “His expertise in advanced mechanical systems and leadership tested on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan gave us an engineer who is capable in any environment, and who can deal well with scholars or tradesmen.”
Fry offered a new perspective to the Harrisburg Area Office along with a unique sense of humor.
"We were fortunate to have gotten a chance to work with Capt. Fry,” said Dawn Conniff, Harrisburg Area Office supervisory engineer. “He brought a fresh perspective coupled with extensive engineering knowledge to the team. He willingly jumped into several construction management and contract administration challenges.”
Jordan appreciates the diversity the officers bring to the Baltimore District. “Their discussions have helped ignite a few ideas in our workforce which might otherwise have never happened,” said Jordan. “It always helps me to hear different perspectives, and both Capt. Fry and Capt. Hancock add much more to the district than an unfamiliar accent and great sense of humor.”
Not only is the Corps of Engineers benefiting from this opportunity, but Hancock and Fry continue to grow professionally.
“This was my first time working on a construction site and first time in a foreign country so it’s been quite a steep learning curve…but after working with a diverse, civilian workforce with experts in their stream of engineering, it has allowed me to become a well-rounded engineer,” Hancock said. “It’s been quite an eye opening experience.”
The eye-opening experiences continue beyond the construction sites and into U.S. culture.
“Small differences can catch you off guard,” said Hancock. “The idea that you have to drive everywhere was quite foreign to us. When I worked at Fort Detrick, I lived about a mile from the office and chose to walk to work, which really confused people,” he joked. “Many of them would come screeching to a halt, asking if I needed a lift when I really just wanted to enjoy a nice walk to work.”
Because of the need to drive from different locations, Hancock and his wife invested in a car.
“We thought we had bought a huge car, only to realize it was lost in the parking lot behind someone else’s even larger car,” said Hancock.
Although many differences caught them off guard, some have been pleasant surprises. Fry recalls the first time he fueled up in the United States and the pump unexpectedly stopped at $40. He was about to complain to the store owner that the pump was broken, when he realized the tank was filled. “My wife and I started high-fiving each other in celebration of how cheap the gas is compared to back home,” said Fry.
Pleasant surprises continue to greet Fry on the streets of Baltimore. “If I am walking to lunch or getting on the light rail, every day someone will say ‘thank you’ for your service, or they’ll shake my hand or even buy my coffee,” said Fry. “That is something we do not experience in the United Kingdom and that was quite a humbling experience.”
This glimpse of respect and friendship is something that Fry and Hancock have become accustomed to while living in Baltimore but both expect their time here to benefit future relations between the U.S. and British Army on a larger scale.
“By working with American engineers, we develop a better understand about how their projects run and how their agencies operate,” said Fry. “If we were to find ourselves on operations in the future working with the United States, we would be in a much better position because we already have that understanding of how the U.S. systems work.”
Fry and Hancock will turn in their thesis in May and head back to the United Kingdom this summer where they will present to a board full of experts in their field of engineering in order to earn their charter as professional engineers.