Building all of our futures

Glamorous or not, chartered surveyors play a vital role in the way we live and work today

Of all the least understood, though notably influential, professions in the country, it is perhaps chartered surveying that most deserves an image makeover. For, despite being associated in the public mind with routine house valuations or something technical to do with theodolites, the role of the modern surveyor in identifying and developing tangible assets such as land and buildings is at the heart of how we live and work today.

Of all the least understood, though notably influential, professions in the country, it is perhaps chartered surveying that most deserves an image makeover. For, despite being associated in the public mind with routine house valuations or something technical to do with theodolites, the role of the modern surveyor in identifying and developing tangible assets such as land and buildings is at the heart of how we live and work today.

Whether it is the part they played more than a decade ago in the regeneration of the City of London and Canary Wharf, or their continued involvement in the staging of the Olympics in Athens or Beijing, the profession's reputation for uncreative grey men in grey suits has never looked so undeserved, says Louis Armstrong, chief executive of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

"Unlike lawyers and doctors, we don't have an LA Law or a Casualty to explain what we do and to help inject our job with some glamour. The truth is that although much of our work is invisible to the world at large, our role is now more central to the political agenda than at any time in the last 120 years, putting us at the heart of the current debate on issues such as urban versus rural life or the environmental impact of new building projects."

In simple terms, the chartered surveyor works on anything connected with land, property and construction; be the client a major retailer looking to develop a new shopping centre in Liverpool, a big landowner in search of a new rural estate in the depths of Shropshire or simply a first-time buyer looking to get on the bottom rung of the property ladder. Hands-on problem-solving and a logical mind are key attributes of the job, as is an ability to get on with clients from all walks of life.

Outside the classic remit of land, property and building though, the role of the chartered surveyor also encompasses anything from fine arts and antiques valuation to the protection of rare wildlife in advance of a new build. Surveyors have a role both in big projects - such as the Bluewater shopping centre - and in the small - such as helping water companies to conserve the few remaining lock-keeper cottages on British waterways. Although the construction business has its fair share of paperwork, being chained to a desk all day is not an option for a surveyor.

It's a world so diverse though, says Armstrong, that it can both attract and deter newcomers to the profession. "Being such a broad church, chartered surveying can certainly offer any number of different career paths for graduates - which is great - but it is also a sector which can defy an easy, 20-second description, which may not be so good if you are someone looking to understand and perhaps break into it."

Although technical skill and high levels of numeracy can be vital in a specialism such as quantity surveying, surveyors on the whole are far more creative, and garrulous than they are given credit for, says the RICS. "A broad educational background and the ability to absorb practical aspects of land management or tax law are important," says Armstrong, "but the ability to persuade people and to communicate effectively with the whole range of professionals that are typically involved in a land or property deal is actually just as important," he adds. The usual way in is via an RICS-accredited degree or diploma course, followed by the two-year Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) that gives an entrant qualified chartered surveyor status and is recognised in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Unlike the more arcane aspects of legal practice, says the Institute, chartered surveying is a very practical profession that requires a good business eye; and although it is a profession with many technicians, it remains an art, rather than a science. Graduate first salaries are typically in the £15,500-£22,000 range, with senior surveyors earning perhaps £31,000-£37,000. Top salaries can exceed £60,000, far more if you move into a lucrative area such as property development.

For those surveyors who enjoy the cut and thrust of big business, the rise up the financial agenda of all matters related to real estate or property has transformed surveyors into hot-shot economic advisers, says Armstrong. "While staff will always remain a firm's biggest asset, number two on the agenda is certainly property. Just as marketing professionals and accountants are now seen as vital strategic advisers to a board of directors on brand equities perhaps, or on overall financial health, RICS members are becoming respected consultants on all matters to do with property."

As long as a graduate has an interest in property or land, and an ability to rub along with other professionals, he or she can choose to work in a wide variety of different sectors. Whether to specialise in the public or the private sector is a key decision, as is the choice between an urban role or a rural bias. Self-employment is becoming more common in the profession and flexible working is now making a mark too.

Women still represent only 12 per cent of the profession overall, but of those who are already chartered surveyors, 20 per cent of them are under 40 years old.

"We don't have many women role models," says Armstrong, "but our enthusiasm for and commitment to more women graduates in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession is absolutely genuine."

He adds that while careers services don't tend to promote the profession to young women, particularly not those careers advisers based at girls-only schools, the flexibility of the profession in terms of hours and career breaks, as well as the growth in new areas of expertise such as social housing work or retail park development is helping to attract more women graduates into the sector.

For those graduates who are primarily money-oriented, chartered surveying offers big money and big prospects, particularly for those who move into the property development arena. With property still the biggest single driver of most people's fortunes, it is possible, says Armstrong, to "get seriously rich as a chartered surveyor" - developers being the single largest group in the UK's top 500 fortunes list - but it is equally possible to indulge more philanthropic motives via a career based in social housing perhaps.

"If you are numerate, personable and ambitious," he says, "you will never be out of a job in chartered surveying and unlike your colleagues sitting in front of their VDUs just making money for their firm all day, it is entirely possible that you will actually leave a tangible, physical legacy on the world in the form of a building."

'I really enjoy working with different people'

Ruth Osborne, 25, is a London-based asset manager with LaSalle Investment Management. A graduate in land management from the University of Reading, she gained work experience during vacations at surveying firms in Northampton and London. She was 23 when she passed her APC

My role at LaSalle is to buy, sell and manage the property portfolios of a wide range of nationwide clients including some large UK pension funds. Most of my time is spent getting out on site and looking at buildings, although I do spend some of my time working at my desk. I really enjoy working with and meeting different people and the variety of projects I am involved in means that I don't get bored.

Although I have a good basic understanding of maths, I don't consider myself a maths whiz - there are people in the office who specialise in the financial side and they are always there to help. Far more important in my job is people skill and the ability to work with different groups of professionals.

I would like to work abroad at some stage, perhaps Australia. The global nature of LaSalle and the fact that my RICS qualification is recognised around the world should help me achieve this goal.

'I love working in the rural surveyor sector'

Niall Milner, 25, is a newly qualified chartered surveyor who works for Davidson & Robertson in the heart of the Edinburgh green belt. He is a graduate in rural surveying from the University of Aberdeen and gained his APC at 24.

I first heard about surveying from a careers adviser at school when I was 14, and after completing my A-levels I decided that I wanted a job where I could work in the countryside and rural environment at a professional level; surveying allowed me to do this.

A highlight of my career so far as a rural surveyor has been acting as an agent for the National Museum of Scotland over the transportation of Concorde from Heathrow to the Museum of Flight in East Lothian. Part of my job was to liaise with the landowners over compensation for any damage done to their crops during the transportation of Concorde over their land and it was great to be involved in such a high-profile event.

My work often means that I am in the middle of a dispute and it is true that the ability to negotiate with different groups of people is an essential tool of the job.

Although I would probably earn more money in another branch of chartered surveying, I love working in the rural surveyor sector and plan to stay in it in the long term.

Specialisms

RICS members are drawn from 16 different specialisms or faculties. Five of the key professional types are:

Building surveyors advise on design and construction of new buildings, and the repair of existing ones.

Construction surveyors oversee construction projects from dams to new houses.

Environmental surveyors assess and monitor the environmental impact of building works.

Plant and machinery surveyors advise on the best use of an organisation's equipment, such as industrial plant, to meet its needs.

Rural surveyors are experts on environmental management, real estate, auctioning, valuing property or equipment, and lease reviews.

Other specialisms include arts and antiques, commercial property, dispute resolution, geomatics, management consultancy and residential property.

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