Surveying: Beyond the building site

Surveyors can specialise in fields as diverse as farming, the valuation of antiques and seabed mapping
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The Independent Online

While television programmes like Grand Designs often lure people into dreams of becoming an architect, they rarely get people excited about careers in surveying. And yet surveying has "a very large hand" in developing the finished product.

It doesn't stop there. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) identifies a massive 170 different specialisms of surveying, not all to do with buildings. Arts and antiques surveyors, for example, work with valuable and curious artefacts, advising the owners on their value care, sale and acquisition privately or by auction.

Meanwhile, rural surveyors give advice to farmers and landowners on unlocking the value of their assets, selling livestock, diversification, change of land and rural management. Then there are geomatics surveyors, who analyse information about the land and sea bed using geographic information systems, land and hydrographic surveying, mapping and positioning, global and local navigation systems, cartography, ocean bed and resource surveys and many more techniques besides.

Back in the world of the built environment, opportunities include building surveying, building control, project management, construction and valuation. Even within these categories, variation is the name of the game. The work of a building surveyor could involve anything from supervising multi-million pound office blocks to restoring historic buildings or managing home extensions.

Surveying whatever type you go for is particularly suited to those who aren't sure if they are science or arts people, says Jones. "Surveying is a science and an art," he insists, adding that if you're creative, have attention to detail and the potential to project manage, you're halfway there. If you have good communication and interpersonal skills, confidence and negotiation skills, even better.

"One of the most appealing aspects of the sector for job seekers is that there is a real opportunity for overseas placements," says Jones. "Dubai and the Caribbean are just a couple of the exotic places that, as a quantity surveyor, you could find yourself."

Then there's the money. "Surveying is a well remunerated industry and in my experience six-figure bonuses for talented professionals are not unheard of," says Jones. "And, as with most sectors, you build a reputation and once you have put the ground work in, this sector lends itself to a healthy work life balance. It is not a nine-to-five office job and this means that those who prefer a more flexible approach to the working day can make the most of this opportunity."

Despite the tempting list of rewards, surveying is calling out for quality candidates and many recruiters are desperate. They say one of the main reasons putting people off surveying is anxiety about how the industry would weather an economic downturn. But Jones is confident. "It is an extremely flexible and robust sector and it adapts to demand like no other. For example, back in the Eighties, during the recession the surveyors shifted to advising on selling properties rather than buying and worked heavily with the banking sector on repossessions. It will always find an angle and a new demand for its services."

Ema Saunders, Savills' graduate and commercial training manager, agrees. "Normally, if there is a downturn in one business sector, a different department will be more busy as a result, so on the whole the business remains stable."

Ed Tooth, spokesperson for RICS, says he recently attended a meeting with a number of HR and recruitment managers who were discussing the very issue of an uncertain economy. "They were saying that it could lead to a tightening up on the number of graduates they take on. However, they can't see themselves stopping recruitment altogether because they'd find themselves facing a shortfall of skills as soon as the economy turned again. Their aim is not just to plan for now but for the future."

The other key reason for the skills shortage, believes Tooth, is the misconceptions associated with surveying. "People think it's boring. But there are so many examples countering that. I can think of one company that does digital mapping for the Harry Potter movies, for example, while another has someone currently working out in the Antarctic. There are lots that have large scale projects in places like Dubai."

Anna Gaymer, 23, works in an area of surveying that is probably considered the most boring of all residential valuations. But she insists her job for Savills in London is exhilarating. "Working in one of the world's most vibrant property markets makes every day exciting and challenging. The biggest project I've been involved in was a regeneration project London's first zero-carbon mixed use development."

The level of responsibility Gaymer has been given since joining Savills has increased rapidly. "Initially, I carried out research and supported my directors. Now I'm producing valuation reports and communicating regularly with clients and developers."

Like many employers of surveyors, Savills runs a graduate training scheme which includes several "rotations" in different types of surveying. Having studied for a surveying degree, Gaymer applied to get on it and was successful. "It was great in terms of introducing me to different areas of surveying," she says.

Gaymer especially enjoys the fact that she is not stuck at her desk all the time in a repetitive or uncreative role. "I'm often out inspecting sites and you have to use your imagination so much to envisage things that will be built in the future. Yes, there is the odd day in front of spreadsheets and there can be pressure to meet deadlines, but you get that in any job."

If you like the sound of surveying but have an unrelated degree, fear not. You can do an intensive postgraduate conversion course. An employer may even fund you to do it while working for them. Mark Smith, recruitment manager for King Sturge, is among them. "The main attributes we look for are bright people with an enthusiastic outlook, good interpersonal skills, and good academic background."

Meanwhile, Gordon Ingram, senior partner at GIA, says, "Key for us is character and intelligence. If you have that, you're 70 per cent of the way there. The rest of the work is about knowledge and people can be trained in that," he says.

If you have no degree at all yet, an apprenticeship isn't out of the question. That said, the Chartered Surveying Training Trust offers them exclusively to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While many wannabe surveyors like the idea of working for a general firm, others like the idea of working for a more specialised company like GIA which advises clients on daylight and sunlight issues, among other things. Ingram points out that 50 years ago, light was an issue addressed by architects, whereas today it is dealt with by surveyors.

"Along with planning, it's the biggest constraint in an urban environment," he explains. "After all, a neighbour has the absolute right to stop a building plan if it affects their light. This means that when it comes to commercial propositions, you effectively have to get consent from everyone around. The surveyors' job is to deal with the strategic element of finding a solution. They work with developers and architects to maximise the building potential and minimise the effect on neighbours."

Emilie Webster, 22, started out doing architectural studies at university, but became so interested in surveying that she swapped courses and now works for Pantelli Associates. "A lot of people think surveying is about counting bricks, but right now I'm working on projects including a student accommodation project in Seven Sisters, a residential renovation in Knightsbridge which includes a swimming pool in the basement and a house in Hampstead which will be demolished and replaced with a 6,000 sq ft luxury property."

' I feel proud to be part of the 2012 Olympics'

Victoria Ma, 27, is a cost planner working on the 2012 London Olympics

I'm a quantity surveyor working in cost management for the Olympics Delivery Authority (ODA). That means I work with project teams to ensure costs are monitored and controlled when it comes to the buildings for the 2012 Olympics. It involves a good mix of office work and going out on site and I work normal office hours.

Previously, I was working on a major sports/residential development in Brighton and I've also worked on the Kemptown racecourse in the US. My sports specialist background meant I was well suited to working on 2012. I first decided on quantity surveying when I was doing my GCSEs. I liked the idea of working both inside and outside and decided to do a degree in surveying.

I feel proud to be part of the Olympics and would never have dreamed it possible just two years ago. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Other people working on it feel that too, so there's a lot of camaraderie.

There can be pressure. There are targets to meet and tight deadlines. But as long as you treat each project individually, it doesn't tend to get on top of you. Projects can be complex, but I relish the challenge and I enjoy overcoming the issues. My hard work pays off, as the salary is good.

To do my job, you need to be positive, as well as a good communicator and listener.

'Because there's a skills shortage, we tend to be treated very well'

Ciaran Dolan, 31, is an associate director at Capita Symonds. In his time as a surveyor, he has worked for major clients in countries including Turkey, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Greece, Libya, Egypt and Nigeria

I've always been interested in construction. It seemed a demanding, interesting environment, with loads of different roles to choose from. Personally, I was torn between architecture and business and felt that becoming a quantity surveyor would be a good mix of the two.

I applied to university and to join the Laing O'Rourke construction training programme, where I worked for a number of summers and one year out before graduating. Then I joined them full-time for a year before joining Capita Symonds, where I've been for three years.

The overseas work has been great. Every construction project, by nature, is different. With international projects, there is even more variation. That can be both exciting and challenging and you find yourself having experiences you'd never dreamed of.

For instance, I recently worked on a project in Kazakhstan and there was such a massive shortage of materials that every piece of construction material from masking tape to paintbrushes had to be imported thousands of miles from Europe.

Despite the stereotype of surveying being dull, I would say it's very interesting. I wish people realised just how many different avenues there are. It's also worth pointing out that salaries are far and above what people earn in many other industries. A lot of my friends work in IT and were heralded to work in a wonderfully high-paid career, but my friends in construction outstrip them significantly. Because there's a skills shortage, surveyors tend to be treated particularly well and there are great opportunities for promotion if you are good enough.