The net is cast wide

Construction firms need graduates from non-related disciplines
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The Independent Online

Since construction is the UK's largest industry, it's hardly surprising that the range of graduate careers is huge. There are more than 35 different occupational areas, including architecture, civil engineering, quantity surveying and construction management. The problem has been that, until recently, graduates were required to have degrees in the relevant subject area before they were employed within the industry. Those who decided to enter construction after leaving university - and numbers have risen sharply in recent years - couldn't do so unless they were prepared to embark upon a whole new degree.

Since construction is the UK's largest industry, it's hardly surprising that the range of graduate careers is huge. There are more than 35 different occupational areas, including architecture, civil engineering, quantity surveying and construction management. The problem has been that, until recently, graduates were required to have degrees in the relevant subject area before they were employed within the industry. Those who decided to enter construction after leaving university - and numbers have risen sharply in recent years - couldn't do so unless they were prepared to embark upon a whole new degree.

"The construction industry needs a staggering 83,000 new entrants each year. Those within the industry have started to realise that by ignoring graduates without construction-related degrees, they have been narrowing the talent pool tremendously," says Julian Humphreys, recruitment and careers business area manager for CITB-ConstructionSkills, the body involved in recruiting, training and qualifying people across the industry. "The result is a new range of ways in which non-cognate graduates can enter construction."

There are several reasons why graduates find the construction industry increasingly appealing, says Chris Cheetham, senior manager at Hays Montrose, the UK's largest construction recruitment agency. "The market is very buoyant at the moment, with a lot of high-quality and exciting construction work going on," he explains. "There is major public- and private-funded investment in all sectors, including on-going lottery-funded projects." Think railways, roads, airports, hospitals, bridges, offices and leisure centres, as well as high-profile projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and Wembly Stadium - and you start to get the picture.

Among the most popular ways in which graduates with non-construction degrees can now enter the industry is the growing number of conversion courses, such as the new CIOB (Chartered Institute of Building)/CITB-ConstructionSkills graduate diploma. "Graduates without construction-related degrees can now be sponsored by an employer to train and gain chartered status within the industry," says Sheila Hoile, director of training strategy at CITB-ConstructionSkills.

This is the first year the formal programme has been run, she says. The 11 graduates on the course are employed by companies including Willmott Dixon, Laing O'Rourke and Balfour Beatty, who have supported the development of the scheme throughout.

"These employers, and others, are increasingly employing graduates from a wide range of disciplines into construction jobs, such as construction management and quantity surveying," says Hoile. "This is not only because of the current skills shortage in the area, but because they see it as adding value to the industry. For example, people with a general management degree can bring a lot to the business that someone with a construction-related degree might not be able to."

Up to now, however, there has been no structured training route for graduates like this. In the past, each company put together its own training package, but there was no guarantee that, at the end of it, graduates would be eligible for chartered status with the CIOB.

Once a graduate's employer has put them forward for the programme and they have been accepted, it can take up to three years to complete. There are 12 modules, including construction law, project management and construction technology. Each lasts a week and is delivered by one of the four affiliated universities taking part in the programme. Once a module is completed, it is followed by two to three months of project-based work, which is related to the company they are working for.

A major benefit of the conversion course, according to Hoile, is that small and medium-sized companies can get involved. "Traditionally, they haven't employed many graduates, but now we can help them to make the most of bright university leavers."

Another postgraduate conversion course, accredited by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), gives non-cognate graduates the opportunity to become chartered surveyors. Dr Rob Tovey, the institution's director of education and training, says: "In September 2000, 419 graduates did the course. By 2002, that figure had reached 1,805, so it is clearly becoming more popular."

He points out that universities vary in their entry requirements, with some stipulating at least some relevant background or experience. But a benefit of this course is that graduates don't have to be employed before undertaking the course. Joanna Smith, 43, who is currently studying on the course at Anglia Polytechnic University, says: "I didn't go to university initially and worked in the City until I was 30, when I decided to do a degree in sculpture. I went on to do a Masters in art and architecture and was self-employed as a community artist for about five years. I became increasingly interested in buildings and sought advice about re-training. I was told about the conversion course in surveying and it appealed to me because it's a varied profession and combines the creative with the technical."

Having applied to the university directly, she is currently in her first year, which involves full-time study. After that, she'll have a year incorporating a year in industry with study. "It suits me perfectly because I didn't want to have to go back to do another first degree, which used to be the only way into surveying," she says.

Chrissie Chadney, HR director at one of the construction industry's largest employers, Willmott Dixon, points to other ways in for graduates with non-related degrees. "Within our business, we require a whole range of professionals, such as in HR, IT, accountancy and general management - and for these, no construction background is necessary. We also take year-out placements from a broad range of disciplines. At the moment, we have one undergraduate studying accountancy and another studying HR - and there is a good chance they will join us, if they get good enough grades."

Many of graduate entrants decide to come into construction only after completing their degrees, she says. "It's not unusual for people to approach us at careers fairs and say they have only just recognised construction as a career opportunity."

'I found I liked everything to do with construction'

A graduate in computing and management, Matt Keen is a trainee site manager for Willmott Dixon Housing. He is currently studying for the CIOB/CITB-ConstructionSkills Graduate Diploma

"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 that you can see a physical result to your work and that you're never in one place for long. I also enjoy the mix of office and outdoor work.

"I applied for a job at Willmott Dixon and we discussed the possibility of me doing the conversion course. It works by block release, so I go off every 12 to 14 weeks on a week's residential course, and this will be the case for the next three years. I then have the opportunity to get chartered status.

"It's great for me because, previously, the only other alternative would have been to do another degree, which would have taken another five years.

"So far, the modules have been really useful and I've been able to apply them in my everyday work. The next one is on construction technology, which I'm particularly excited about because I have no knowledge of that area, yet it's one that I'm often asked about on-site."

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