Like many chartered building and quantity surveyors, Claire Leaver came across the profession by chance. "My degree was in classics and classical architecture and since I didn't really know what to do with it, I sent off 120 applications to various sectors. I received eight good offers, but it was the one in quantity surveying that stood out because it led to a solid qualification," says Leaver, 26, who works as a quantity surveyor for property and construction consultancy Ridge.
The fact that an employer was willing to fund her conversion course also helped. "The training scheme was well structured and innovative," she adds. "They used mock actors so that you could practice how you would be in front a client."
Now that she's in the profession, Leaver says there are other rewards. "It's such a varied career. I've worked on projects ranging from industrial plants to supermarkets. I like the fact that you're not stuck in an office. You're also out and about seeing buildings grow as a result of your work. It's a very social career too."
Phe Yianni, 29, a quantity surveyor at the same firm, also discovered her profession inadvertently. "I did a degree in biology and genetics and started working at Lloyds TSB. When I'd worked my way up to a project support role, I found myself doing a lot of work with quantity surveyors, a job I'd never even heard of before but one which I found really interesting."
She was also supported to do the conversion course and now loves the day-to-day challenges, alongside the opportunity to improve communities by working on projects ranging from refurbishments of schools to operating theatres of hospitals.
The problem is that the current shortfall of quantity and building surveyors means the industry can no longer afford to leave such career choices to chance. "People seem to consider accountancy, law or IT above surveying - often because they don't know what surveying actually involves," says Graham Smith, spokesperson for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). "It doesn't help that the image of surveying is dull. Whilst property is seen as an increasingly 'cool' world, I think construction still suffers from the image of fluorescent jackets and hard hats."
The reality is anything but dull. Quantity surveyors manage all costs relating to building projects. From initial calculations to final figures, they seek to minimise the costs of a project and enhance value for money, whilst still achieving the required standards. "The role involves a lot of communication due to the amount of liaising you have to do," adds Smith.
Meanwhile, building surveyors provide professional advice on all aspects of property and construction. They work on site with new buildings, as well as getting involved in the aftercare and performance of existing buildings. The nature of the work ranges from the design of large, multi-million pound structures to modest adaptations and repairs, and can sometimes include working with buildings of architectural or historic importance. Today's building surveyors are IT and technology driven, says Smith. "For instance, instead of using tape measures, they fire lasers across rooms to measure distance."
There are three main entry routes into each profession - via a cognate degree, a non-cognate degree plus a conversion course, or as a school leaver. "You don't necessary need to be an academic to work your way up," explains George Marsh, chairman of Chase Norton Construction. "The construction industry is much more focused on attitude."
Gordon Headley, group HR director at David Wilson Homes, says the school leaver route is becoming increasingly common. "People come into the business, having done their GCSEs, and we support them through an ONC, then an HNC and some go onto do a BSC. It's a longer route, but there's no student debt at the end."
Surveying suffers from the largest number of vacancies in David Wilson Homes, a situation that Headley describes as critical "because surveyors have such a massive effect on the business." Among the company's attempts to get people in is through competitive salaries and good health benefits and car allowances. "We also point out that a lot of key management positions, including our chief executive, are filled by ex-surveyors," he says.
Dominic Fussell, managing director of Hurstwood Construction, is also a surveyor by training. "This is an industry that recognises hard work and surveyors are treated as increasingly professional," he says.
Other work being done at a grass roots level to attract people into surveying is building stronger links between employers and careers guidance. Chris Morley, managing partner of Ridge, says, "We've just sent some posters to universities for their careers board. Sometimes it's the simple things that work well because many people don't know what surveying is."
Ridge is also involved in sponsoring places at educational institutions and is in the process of formalising its summer and sandwich-year work placements. "We're also thinking of sponsoring a prize or two, where the best student in a particular subject gets a prize, such as a work placement or something else."
Robert Elegba, 26, points out that some of the most exciting opportunities in surveying at the moment are related to preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. "I have got to work on some fantastic projects such as the Olympic & Legacy Developments, which has definitely been the highlight of my career so far," he says.
Sue Nutt, 27, works as a quantity surveyor for the construction and property consultancy RLF.
"I was going to study history at university but I decided to go for a subject that would lead directly to a career. I also liked the idea of studying alongside training on the job.
It took me five years to train part-time, plus two years to get my chartered status. But the experience I got alongside it is invaluable. I've been involved with projects for a bank, for the education sector and for the health sector.
Now that I'm qualified, I could divert into project management, which I might consider in the future. For now, my aim is to become a rounded surveyor with experience in bigger and bigger multi-million pound projects.
A lot of people think you have to be really numerate to do this job, but I didn't do A-level maths. I think it's more important to be able to think logically and have good negotiating skills - and even those can be learned over time."