Paul Aldersley, Offshore Surveyor at Andrews Survey, took the risk of retraining after a very rewarding career as CEO of YMCA South Devon. Graduating at 51, Paul shares his experience of an alternative pathway into hydrographic surveying.
Why did you choose to study Hydrography at University?
When I left school in 1983, far fewer people went to university than do today (I think about 6% went then while something like 52% go now). I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living and so decided to look for work and see where things went from there.
After a variety of jobs, I ended up working for a charity I had volunteered with while at school. I ended up working in the charity sector for 25 years reaching the position of CEO of a sister charity to the one I had started with.
However, I have always loved the sea and wanted to work in or around it in some way. Although I am a recreational scuba instructor and a part 4 commercial diver, neither of these offered practical careers at my stage of life. By chance, conversations with two different people led me to thinking about offshore surveying.
I was very lucky to live in Plymouth as Plymouth University is one of very a few places who offer a specifically hydrography focused degree. Being established in Plymouth with my wife in a good job and children at school this made studying hydrography a practical possibility and so, I took the leap, gave up my job and went for the degree.
What do you do on a daily basis?
This is a difficult question to answer as no two jobs are the same and no two days on a job are the same. The kind of work we undertake ranges from cable lay (I have worked on a fibre optic cable lay for internet right across the Atlantic) to various jobs on windfarms, dive support jobs and so on.
In broad terms a day involves a 12-hour shift (day or night). Work can be ‘online’ – running live survey work, often with Remote Vehicles in the water – acquiring survey data. Or it can be ‘offline’ – processing survey data into a format required by our clients.
Depending on the job I might work as a part of a team – for example last year we were on a job surveying a route for unexploded ordnance and historic wrecks. I was part of a team of eight, four on each shift. On other jobs, there is just one surveyor on each shift.
The shift starts with a handover from your opposite number. A day’s online survey work can include monitoring and recording divers while they work on the seabed, running surveys of specific seabed infrastructure and recording and guiding the positioning of equipment being placed on the seabed.
If the particular job I am on is ‘offline’ work on then it will be processing the latest data, cleaning it and formatting it into whatever form the client requires.
In addition to this there is the daily reporting, record keeping and so on.
Describe a highlight of your career.
Having been in the industry for just 4 years, I don’t really feel qualified to call it a career quite yet but if I might cheat a bit and mention a few things I love about the job.
I really enjoy working with such a variety of people, both those working directly with me and the other people on the ships. Working with people from all over the world from so many different backgrounds but who are all working in their own skill areas to produce a single result is very rewarding.
I really enjoy the new experiences the job has given me – I travelled more in my first year offshore than the rest of my life. I have seen volcanos and hurricanes, worked in some of the most remote parts of the world and have seen so much wildlife.
I hesitate to say this last one because it is incredibly nerdy, but I also get great satisfaction when I am able to see a good result from my work – whether that is survey data or a final report. In my previous career, we worked with challenging young people. Although that was very rewarding and we sometimes saw some amazing results, more often than not you never knew whether the work you had done had paid off. At the end of a trip offshore you can look at your work and say, “I did that”. It’s a great feeling.
What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I think the world was very different for school leavers when I was that age. Certainly, in my school we were given the impression that, if you did not go to university, you had failed and, when you did decide on a career, that was it, for life.
I wish I had realised that it is OK to try something out and decide it is not for you and change. I feel lucky that I have been able to change pretty late in life, but it was not easy for myself or my family.
I work hard with my own children to encourage them to take risks, have a go and know that it’s OK to decide that was a blind alley and try something else.
It’s not failure, it’s evolution.