Studying to bridge the skills crisis

Graduates from all disciplines are being encouraged to take conversion courses and reap the benefits of a career in construction. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

Although the construction industry boasts over 35 different occupational areas - ranging from architecture to quantity surveying - the reality is that most graduates overlook the sector altogether. "The biggest problem is image," says Mark Blythe, managing director of GTI, the specialist graduate publishers. "Mention construction and people think of builders, but it's a terrific industry with an enormous range of professional possibilities."

It doesn't help that many of the most exciting roles, such as site management and project planning, simply don't exist on the graduate radar. "Graduates don't know these careers exist and even if they do, they're quick to dismiss them because they assume they'd need a relevant degree."

Again, not true. Because of the current skills crisis facing the industry, more and more people with non-cognate degrees are being encouraged to do conversion courses. Most take two to three years and many can be done on the job. Mark Way, chairman of lifelong learning and education at the CIC (Construction Industry Council), says: "At the moment, we're getting loads of people with geography degrees going on to be quantity surveyors."

Among those providing these courses is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Dr Rob Tovey, director of education and training at the institution, says: "In September 2000, 419 graduates did the course and we're now around the 2,000 mark, so it's clearly becoming popular."

The majority of graduates studying this course apply directly to a university. Meanwhile, graduates who want to earn while they learn, and who are interested in disciplines ranging from construction management to quantity surveying, can opt for the more recently introduced CIOB (Chartered Institute of Building) graduate diploma - another example of the growing number of conversion courses popping up all over the UK.

Matt Keen, a trainee site manager for Willmott Dixon Housing, says: "I had a year out during my first degree and wound up doing some labouring. I found myself attracted to everything that construction has to offer. I particularly like the fact that you're never in one place for more than a single project and I also enjoy the mix of office and outdoor work."

Having demonstrated his enthusiasm to Willmott Dixon, he got a job and discussed with his employer the possibility of undertaking the course. "It works by block release," he says. "So I go off every 12 to 14 weeks on a week's residential course and at the end, I'll have the opportunity to get chartered status."

Keen, who is currently halfway through the diploma, says: "Among the subjects we study are contract law and material performance studies - that is, how materials like timber and concrete react in certain situations. I find most of them really useful."

Just because he's on the course doesn't mean he misses out on responsibility in his daily job, he insists. "At the moment, I'm working on a site in Milton Keynes and I'm in charge of two large buildings with 50 flats between them and retail units underneath. This means getting involved in anything from sub-contracting meetings to organising scaffolding inspections."

Bruce McAra, managing director of Cost Management, a company that employs quantity surveyors, is taking on more people like Keen. "For the last four years it has not been easy to recruit people who have cognate degrees, so we now employ people with arts degrees, as well as science degrees. Provided they are bright, intelligent people who are genuinely interested in what this industry has to offer, we'll consider them."

He believes there's never been a more exciting time to join construction. "The industry is growing at a rate we haven't experienced for a whole generation and with all the new technology that's come in since, it's amazing what is being achieved." He adds: "The Government is really committed to this sector and the days when most of your time would involve being stuck out on a site with muddy boots are over. We are becoming a truly valued profession."

There are some great international opportunities for graduates who want them and salaries are improving too, he says. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of all, he believes, is to leave a legacy behind you in a building. "It's incredibly satisfying to be able to say, 'I helped create that.'"

Among the projects graduates get involved in are roads, homes, bridges, town centres and airports. Examples of those of particular note in recent years include the Thames Gateway Bridge, Royal William Yard in Plymouth and the Solar Pyramid in Derbyshire. You could also find yourself involved in restoration projects such as the Georgian Theatre Royal building in Richmond, which has been restored to look as it would have done 200 years ago. The Grade I listed building has had its auditorium painted to match the original décor and new lighting has been designed to recreate the flickering candles that would have lit the building when it opened in 1788. It's also had a new extension with a new lift, cloakrooms, bar and coffee lounge to keep 21st-century visitors happy. The project cost £1.4m and was completed in 2003.

Tony Ellender, training manager at Balfour Beatty, which employs 120 graduates a year - mainly civil and construction engineers and quantity surveyors - agrees that helping to create something tangible is appealing. "We tend to do big hospital projects, as well as schools, roads, tunnels and bridges. In fact, there's not much we don't specialise in, except for house building." He points to other career routes for graduates with non-related degrees. "Within our business, we require a whole range of professionals, such as in HR, marketing, IT and accountancy. These type of roles probably make up 20 per cent of our graduate intake."

Among the other benefits of the construction industry are a guaranteed job and job progression, says Michael Bandoni, a quantity surveyor for Persimmon Homes in west Scotland. "It's pretty well paid, each day is different and you get to meet so many people," he says. "The only real downside is the bad weather, when it happens."

The current skills crisis is particularly good news for graduates who already have a construction-related degree. Helen Kirk-Brown, a branch manager at Hays Construction and Property, says: "About 80 per cent of graduates coming to us have graduated in construction and they really do have the pick of the crop when it comes to jobs. I remember six years ago, when I started out in recruitment, graduates would walk through the door in the summer and you could put them in temp work. Now, they say they'll only take permanent positions and they're getting them. They're getting really good jobs with plenty of early responsibility."

The industry is especially keen to attract engineers, says Mark Blythe of GTI. "The City increasingly targets engineering students and, periodically, you hear about whole-year groups not going into construction because they're snapped up elsewhere. This has always been a problem, but since the construction industry so desperately needs engineers, it is doing all it can to get them on board. For graduates, this can mean extra perks that are well worth considering."

Damien Bateman of Young Entrepreneurs in Property, a networking and discussion forum for under-35-year-olds in the building industry, says that the days are over when you had to wait many years for your career to take off. "In the past, most networking forums were aimed at directors and those at the top of the industry," he says. "But our members are young people in the industry - architects, surveyors, engineers and so on - who will be tomorrow's leaders. Our aim is to give them a helping hand in making contacts and discussing significant issues so that they can get there quicker."

'I love that each project has different clients and problems'

David Whysall, 23, is a quantity surveyor at Turner & Townsend.

'I've always wondered how buildings are put together and I liked the variety a career in quantity surveying could offer. Since being at Turner & Townsend, I've been working on a number of construction projects where it's my job to manage the costs from conception to completion.

Since we are employed by the client to ensure we are achieving value, we work with quite a lot of detail. We look at things like the capital construction costs and the value in terms of running and maintenance or in terms of design.

I love the fact that each project has different clients and different problems to solve. You may be on a retail project, where everything has to be done by Christmas - so the timing dictates the way you go forward. Alternatively, you might be working with a charity, where costing is paramount.

The role of a quantity surveyor is a lot more holistic than people think. There seems to be a stigma that it is reactive, simply adding up costs. But our work is a lot more proactive and complex than that.'

'I'm good with people and like being outside, so opted for site management'

Jagjeet Kumari, 27, is a site manager at Mansell.

'A lot of my family are in construction and I decided to go into architecture. But after some thought, I realised I wanted something more hands-on. I'm quite good with people and like being outside, so I opted for site management instead.

Although I got a lot of rejections from employers, as most people do, I'd got a job by the August after graduating. At first, I was a bit daunted about being female in a male-dominated industry, but I get one out of about 50 people who have any issue with that.

So far, I've been working on fairly large projects and each day I'm faced with different things, which provides great variety. The kinds of things I've been doing lately include organising health and safety inspections, auditing and regulating site inspections and liaising with site contractors and other professionals. In fact, the vast bulk of my work involves dealing with people. I've also been involved in checking the right amount of steel has been put in the building before the concrete goes in.

You get a huge sense of satisfaction when a project is finished. My latest project is a block of flats and the ads are already up for flats to be sold. When I see it, I feel proud.'

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