More than a degree of choice

The range of degrees leading into the buoyant construction sector is vast
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The Independent Online

Even the most cursory look around Britain's major towns and cities demonstrates that, after a period in the doldrums, the construction industry is firmly back on track. Whether it's new-build shopping centres or the current government programme to upgrade school buildings, business is booming for the hard-hats and other building brains that make up this two million-strong industry.

Even the most cursory look around Britain's major towns and cities demonstrates that, after a period in the doldrums, the construction industry is firmly back on track. Whether it's new-build shopping centres or the current government programme to upgrade school buildings, business is booming for the hard-hats and other building brains that make up this two million-strong industry.

All of which is good news for the estimated 42,000 students who have already applied to universities and colleges for places on civil engineering, architecture or building courses this autumn. Whether they eventually choose careers in on-site construction, or in one of more than 35 different occupational areas including architecture, surveying, IT, the environment, marketing or finance, graduates with an affinity for what the industry calls "the built environment" have never been more in demand.

A partner in the Sector Skills Council for Construction - which needs to attract around 415,000 new recruits over the next five years - is CITB-ConstructionSkills, which has put in place a raft of initiatives designed to encourage more students to apply for one of the 405 degree courses in building or construction that are currently available in the UK.

In terms of degree choice, says CITB-ConstructionSkills, the opportunities are limitless. Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University is perhaps typical - it offers undergraduates a BSc in more than 10 different disciplines, ranging from architectural engineering, construction management and building surveying to civil and structural engineering and urban studies - with all courses approved by the relevant professional bodies.

Other universities, including Northumbria University, offer more unusual courses in housing, estate management and planning and development surveying. The University of Ulster invites students to apply for a BSc Hons in construction engineering and management, enabling graduates to pursue a wide range of careers in construction once they have decided on their area of interest. Accredited by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the Ulster degree - which includes a full placement year - leads towards professional membership of the institute, or MCIOB.

University College London's faculty of the built environment is inviting candidates to apply for 2005 entry to its project management for construction degree course. The BSc has been designed, says UCL, "specifically to respond to long-standing concerns that many of the problems of the construction industry result from the lack of good management".

According to Julian Humphreys, business area manager, recruitment and careers at CITB-ConstructionSkills, students looking to join a construction degree course should first decide whether they are design- or engineering-led. "While it is possible to cross from one branch of the industry to the other, many students are stronger in either art, design and architecture or are heavily into applied mathematics and therefore more likely to want a career on the engineering side. There are, in my view, two quite different mindsets in construction."

Humphreys advises any would-be construction undergraduate to spend a few days on the Web, checking out which professional body is the accrediting authority behind the degree and, second, deciding on the mode of study. Among the decisions to be made, he says, are whether the degree should be sponsored or unsponsored, full-time or part-time, a three-year degree with work experience in the holidays or a four-year sandwich course with a full year in industry.

"Many students are looking for sponsorship and bursary opportunities, which can be comprehensively investigated on the Web," he says. "While some undergraduates want just three years of study, others are keen to have a year out. There really is no average degree in this industry."

For those leaving university with a BEng or BSc, average graduate starting salaries are around £19,000. A 25-year-old engineer working in London can expect to earn around £26,000, while an average 27-year-old contract quantity surveyor may earn up to £32,000. Once a graduate has earned his or her spurs, consultancy work is both popular and well-paid.

At 26, environmental engineer and entrepreneur Georgia Elliott-Smith is typical of the new breed of young construction professionals who have chosen a consultancy role in order to keep on the move. Elliott-Smith's degree was sponsored by Bovis - which not only gave her an allowance, but also offered paid work experience, full training and a job at the end of her degree. She has worked on The Trafford Retail Centre in Manchester, the Bluewater Centre close to London, and been involved in a building project for BMW in Hamburg.

For postgraduate students the choice of degrees is equally varied, ranging from traditional construction courses to the study of more contemporary issues, such as housing or the environment. Reading University, for example, offers the study of effective environments for the physically impaired and the ageing, and also runs a masters degree/PGDip/PgCert in renewable energy and the environment.

Whatever the degree choice, CITB-ConstructionSkills notes that career prospects for graduates from any of the construction disciplines are rosy. According to its latest statistics, 37 per cent of construction graduates go straight into professional-level positions, 31 per cent into technical-level or associate professional positions, and 22 per cent go into management-level posts. As many as 82 per cent of such graduates find employment in the industry within six months of graduating.

While the organisation's own careers website www.bconstructive.co.uk offers comprehensive advice and guidance on training and qualifications, the employer-focused www.designajob.co.uk provides a one-stop-shop for construction jobs, sponsorship opportunities, careers advice and events. Big-name employers such as Arup, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Gleeson, McAlpine, Laing and Willmott Dixon - whose annual graduate intake ranges from 10 to 100 posts - are an important strength of the site.

'I get a thrill from driving past sites I've worked on'

Kit Chung, 28, is a site agent with the Kier Group. She has a BSc in construction management from the University of Westminster. She applied to Kier via the university milk round and has been with the group since graduation. Her job involves running and managing sites and making sure that sub-contractors conform to the building programme. At Westminster, where she was one of three women on a course of 40, her degree topics included strategic management, disputes management, law, environmental studies and services.

"It was while I was doing a GCSE in technical drawing and completing a project on the interior views of my home that I realised I wanted to pursue a career in architecture. At 17, after visiting a number of websites, I changed my career choice to construction and I have never looked back.

"The thrill I get from driving past sites that I've worked on - including Lords Cricket Ground and Canada House in Trafalgar Square - is unbeatable, as is the knowledge that every day will be completely different from the one before.

"My degree taught me an awful lot in terms of textbook experience, but the hands-on experience of being on a site, and the importance of mixing and getting on with different groups of people, has been the real learning curve.

"One of the first site agents I met told me how satisfying he found it to make a difference to people's lives - whether it meant being involved in the construction of a car park or of a house build - and I now understand exactly what he meant."

Although I'm only 5ft 2in and a woman, I don't feel that I'm treated any differently from male colleagues and it's certainly not a feeling of 'kid gloves'. I was always determined to have a career in construction and I simply won't let being a woman stand in my way."

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