Graduates from various disciplines are launching dynamic careers

Forget builder's cleavage, wolf whistles and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The modern construction industry has moved on, as befits a sector that employs nearly two million people in the UK and accounts for 6 per cent of GDP (£60bn).

Forget builder's cleavage, wolf whistles and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The modern construction industry has moved on, as befits a sector that employs nearly two million people in the UK and accounts for 6 per cent of GDP (£60bn).

It's also a growing industry: according to figures from ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council, it will create job opportunities for 86,000 people every year for the next four years.

These numbers provide plenty of scope for graduates. The construction professional services sector - which includes engineers, architects, project managers, surveyors, facilities managers and planners - employs 225,000 people, a number expected to rise to 365,000 by 2007, according to a 2003 ConstructionSkills report.

From John Prescott's plans for a new-build housing spree to major infrastructure projects such as Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and possibly the 2012 Olympics, the industry's current growth spurt looks set to continue for a few years. And that's just in this country: the Middle East and Asia are also experiencing a construction boom.

After several years in the doldrums, the message is starting to filter down the recruitment chain. Julian Humphreys, business manager for recruitment and careers at CITB-ConstructionSkills, says young people are signing up to the industry in greater numbers, with a 10-15 per cent increase in the number applying to study construction and built environment-related degree courses.

There's fierce competition for the high flyers, with the big City salaries proving a distraction for many graduates. However, while not in the same league as the big banks and accountancy houses, salaries have improved: graduate entrants can expect to start on between £19,000 and £23,000. There are also the attractions of ongoing development and training, with most employers guiding their graduates towards a professional qualification.

Project management and services group Amec, for example, puts its construction sector graduates on an accredited training scheme with either the Institute of Civil Engineers or the Chartered Institute of Builders.

"It will usually take them four or five years to get professional status," says Amec's HR manager Annie Stonestreet. "We also put them through an Amec-designed professional skills development programme, which covers things like an introduction to finance, presentation skills and customer care."

These skills are increasingly in demand in an industry where construction professionals manage multi-million pound projects involving armies of subcontractors and multiple financial and legal arrangements. It's not enough to be technically brilliant: to be successful you also need to understand what makes people tick, to motivate, influence and direct them. Graduates who can master these skills are highly sought.

"Construction has been bedevilled in the past by an adversarial culture and that added costs and friction into the process," says Alun Griffiths, group HR director at global construction consultancy Atkins. "We are looking for people with the softer people and communication skills."

It helps explain why the industry is so keen to redress its woeful gender imbalance. The construction professional services are predominantly male, with women making up just 10 per cent of the 225,000 headcount - and of those the bulk are in clerical and administrative roles. Yet women are perceived to be better at the very skills now judged so critical to the delivery of a successful project.

Emma Bull, a quantity surveyor with construction and property development company Willmott Dixon, says many women are put off by dated perceptions of the industry: "People still think construction is all about builders' bums," she says. "But it's a great career and women need to grab the opportunities that men have been having for a very long time."

Eva Hui, an Atkins building services engineer who focuses on the lifts, lights and air-conditioning systems that make a building come alive, agrees.

"It's changed so much since I first went on site 10 years ago," says Hui, adding that the industry has made great efforts to overhaul its macho image. "There would be heckling back then but now people would be dismissed for doing that."

Hui, who originally wanted to be an accountant before being won over by the satisfaction of being on site and seeing a building move from drawing board to reality, says she has no regrets about signing up for a career in construction.

"I don't think accountancy could have provided me with the variety I was looking for," says Hui, who has travelled all over the world with her job and now manages a team of 50 engineers in London. "It's very satisfying to work with people who are so passionate about what they do and to be able to influence structural and architectural decisions in order to build a space that people will be happy in."

'The work is always changing'

Emma Bull, 30, is a quantity surveyor with Willmott Dixon

I was working in administration but I'd gone as far as I was going to go and I wasn't really using my abilities. I saw an advert for a trainee surveyor and thought that sounded really interesting. It's been the best move I ever made. I've been sponsored through a part-time degree course, I've doubled my salary since I started and my academic abilities and confidence have really grown.

There's no such thing as a typical day, but in general my working day involves financially managing the contract and sequencing the work. I get to spend a lot of time on site observing the work and I take a lot of photos and measurements, working from drawings and plans. I'm also heavily involved in the legal aspect and I'll spend time poring over spreadsheets and communicating with everyone at every level of the project. The work is always changing. We do office buildings, schools, hospitals and leisure centres and I'm working on an extension of a distribution centre in south Wales. I've just finished a £13.5m project building a new school in Newport, where I was handling about £1m per month.

I am the only woman based on site. The clients on my last two jobs have been women but I haven't come across any other women in the field. You do get a few comments on the site at first but I don't notice it any more. It's certainly never caused any problems for me and if people are surprised to be dealing with me on site they don't show it.

You have to work hard, the hours are not conventional and you have a great deal of responsibility. But it's also very satisfying. You have a real sense of ownership and know every corner of the building. I feel really proud every time I drive past the school we just did and tell everyone I was involved in building it. It's tangible and there's nothing like that.