Why surveying is riding high on Olympic spirit

The London 2012 Games is a chance to showcase British building expertise and attract candidates to a profession that is suffering severe skills shortages

Virginia Matthews
Thursday 20 September 2007 00:00 BST

If London 2012 promises to highlight the achievements of UK sport, then the impact of such a prestigious project on the image of surveyors - currently taking a starring role in the preparatory work going on in Hackney, East London - could be even more profound.

Whether your interest lies in architecture, building design or engineering or in land, building or quantity surveying, the five-year build up to the £10bn London Olympics extravaganza is at last giving the profession some well-deserved exposure.

Despite a somewhat pedestrian image, particularly when set against the glamour of the City or the media, the employment opportunities being offered by what is termed the "built environment" are enormous; especially in these days of talent shortage.

While the oft-quoted skills shortage is biting deep across all sectors - CBI research suggests that up to 30 per cent of all private companies are feeling the talent pinch - in the building business, the facts are particularly stark.

According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the UK construction industry is enjoying a period of growth worth £36bn; but faces a crippling lack of skills.

While up to 0.2 per cent of the UK's construction workforce is needed for London 2012 between now and 2010, nearly two-thirds of the firms involved are finding it hard to recruit quantity surveyors. As many as 87,000 new construction recruits are needed every year by 2010 to meet demand; and that's leaving aside the issue of keeping on board the people already embedded in the sector.

Guy Leonard, group board director at management and engineering firm Mott MacDonald and chairman of Franklin Andrews; its quantity surveying arm, believes that while the skills shortage is biting hard, the countdown to 2012 is providing the industry with "an important shot in the arm" and a "worldwide showcase" for its achievements.

While he believes that those in the know have always understood the potential of a career in surveying, he believes that the construction of the Olympic Village on the Hackney marshes will finally lay to rest the image of a dull, number-crunching male complete with hard hat and clipboard.

"Every time you look at a building, you can be sure that there have been a team of professionals at work on its design, planning and construction and to know that you have been involved in creating a piece of built environment is a tremendous personal and professional satisfaction," he says.

Yet despite the glamourous nature of his firm's work, relatively few young people, he says, actually know what a quantity surveyor does or the type of work they may be involved in.

He says: "The profession is already doing a lot to talk to young people about careers in the built environment as a whole, but when it comes to an area such as quantity surveying that initial understanding of the role simply isn't there."

Christine Keates, HR partner at the building consultancy Tuffin Ferraby Taylor, is a senior figure on several national property forums and has long campaigned for the industry to take a more proactive approach towards skills shortages. She believes that the "invisibility" of surveying is a key issue for the profession.

"We need to take some of our brightest and youngest employees into schools, rather than senior partners at the tail end of their careers, to harness the excitement around construction and to explain more graphically exactly what it is we do; even if that means something practical like taking a full-size scissor lift into an assembly hall and allowing pupils to ride in it."

Like Leonard, Keates stresses that having a building-related degree is no longer necessary now that the quality of conversion courses is so high.

"We need to make young people aware of the profession, rather than bewildering them with different career options such as building surveyor, quantity or mineral surveyor," she adds. "First capture their interest, then help them find an appropriate career path."

Mott MacDonald employs around 400 graduates a year, but according to Leonard, it is now keen to take on far more to meet demand. He notes that contrary to many other professions, the chances of a graduate carving out a well-paid career in surveying are currently very good; whatever their degree subject.

He says: "If you have the right sort of potential, we will happily take you on and mould you into one of our own. We don't care if you are a classics graduate or a linguist; just as long as you have the intellectual strength and the drive we need."

As the professional body for surveying, RICS is, says Ed Badke, director of construction, "acutely aware of the skills shortages that the quantity surveying sector faces."

He adds: "Clearly engagement must take place across schools universities and the opportunities for training promoted. RICS is currently setting up a taskforce of surveyors to tackle this important issue."

The Institution's own research suggests that many of the industry's project managers lack soft skills such as communication and leadership; qualities seen as vital to successfully managing a project. It predicts that such talents can only become more pivotal as the onward march of surveying continues.

'One of my recent projects involved the construction of an £8m leisure centre'

Steve Blandford, 26, is an intermediate quantity surveyor with Franklin Andrews. A graduate in furniture and product design, he completed a two year postgraduate diploma in construction a year ago and expects to achieve chartered surveyor status within two years. He says that quantity surveying is a much-misunderstood profession.

"We may sound like glorified accountants who care about nothing but the figures, but I've always had a great interest in the finished product - the building itself - and I'd say that the majority of my colleagues are the same.

One of my recent projects involved the construction of an £8m leisure centre for Wellingborough Council in Northants; a project that I saw through from the original costing to the actual public opening day. That gave me tremendous professional pride.

Working on public sector projects is particularly worthwhile because you are so aware that you could one day become one of the customers, while private sector work can allow you more flexibility with the budget and a bit more freedom with the design.

Furniture design is still a passion of mine, but it's very hard to make a living in it and I have no regrets about switching to surveying via a conversion course.

Not all of us get the chance to work on big, iconic projects, but as long as there is a decent budget and the building itself is worthwhile, there is a lot of satisfaction to be had in making sure that a project is on budget and is value for money.

For me, seeing the end product is always a big excitement."

'I size up land before anything is built'

Robert Elegba, 27, is a senior development surveyor with the global real estate firm DTZ. His current projects include Chatham Waterfront and the Bedford Station Quarter Redevelopment. He completed a degree in property development at Kingston University.

"Although I have an input in how a piece of land, typically an old brownfield site, is used, I don't tend to get too immersed in the aesthetics of a design or how the eventual buildings will look. That's the job of the architect.

My role is an intensely practical one, but it's about far more than the numbers. I size up land before anything new has been built on it and I examine things like the acquisition arrangements, the proposed use, the local planning regime and the marketing requirements.

If my client is a private one, I will look at the use of the land in terms of potential profit and if the client is a local authority, it will be matter of weighing up whether the planned use is 'extracting best value from public assets'.

It's my job to build a good working relationship with the architect team while ensuring that their designs are practical ones. I wanted to be an architect myself, but I can't draw and anyway, I'm more practical than creative.

As a child, I always noticed the buildings around me, particularly the urban landscape, but I probably wouldn't have been able to say what a development surveyor did. My ambition now is to climb the ladder and reach director level."

'By 2012, we will be ready and waiting'

James Bulley, 39, director of Venues and Infrastructure for London 2012, is on secondment from the commercial property consultancy Drivers Jonas. His job is to ensure that the Olympic Park buildings are put up on time and within budget.

"You won't see any construction work on the Olympic Park until next year - it's all happening underground. The huge tunnels for the power lines going to the Park have already been completed on time and on budget. The foundations are next.

The hoardings and fencing are going up and if you came down here today, you should be able to envisage the finished product.

I want 2012 to make maximum use of the London landscape and I expect the equestrian event in Greenwich Park and the beach volleyball in Horse Guard's Parade to attract particular interest. We have some spectacular imagery to play with in London and that's what will make 2012 really special and memorable.

There has never been a case of an Olympics venue being finished late and it won't happen in London either. By 27 July, 2012, we will be there; ready and waiting."

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