The industry includes an impressive variety of roles – but unless you are on the inside it can be hard to know how to break in, let alone progress to the top. In this new series,  we talk to professionals about their often surprising career twists and turns

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How long have you been working and what is your current job?

I have been in construction management for five and a half years. My current job title is site manager at Angel Square.

What were your first career ambitions? (Would your 16-year-old self be surprised at what you’re doing now?)

James Preston McLaren

My first career ambitions were to follow the footsteps of my father – who is a project manager in construction. I left school and completed a City & Guilds diploma in plumbing studies. I would say the diploma helped me get a good idea of construction before making a start in management. My 16-year-old self would not be at all surprised at the path I’m on now!

When did you start thinking about a career in construction and why?

I was always one of those kids that loved building, it’s something that has always peaked my interest and I have always loved doing.

I first started thinking about an actual career in construction when I was in school, when I was probably about 15 years old.

Who or what helped you get where you are today?

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many people who contributed significantly to what is currently a most fulfilling career. These include project managers that I met early on in my journey, operational directors and trainees.

In my view, an essential aspect of personal growth involves maintaining a proactive stance of inquiry, consistently seeking answers to questions and selectively adopting valuable insights from various sources. By doing so, I was able to cultivate more proficient and effective managerial skills.

Did your choice of subjects/qualifications in education help or hinder you getting a job in the sector?

So many companies offer apprenticeship programmes. When you start off as a trainee, you should not have to worry about after-school qualifications as you can complete these once you start your apprenticeship.

As for applying to a company as assistant or site Manager, a Higher National Certificate or the equivalent in a construction-related subject is the minimum, or a degree related to the same would be even better.

Have you had to overcome any other barriers to get where you are today?

The greatest challenge for me has been balancing the practical work onsite with the academic qualification. Switching between practical and academic commitments takes flexibility, resilience and a can-do attitude. The pace of learning is much quicker on site but, once you adapt, it is really rewarding.

What do you know now about the industry that you wish you knew when you were at school?

Construction works often continue on the weekend…unbelievable!

What surprised you about the industry as a new starter?

The vast amount of works that need to be covered on a construction project, from construction packages and sub-contractors to groups of people we are accountable to. There is so much to think about in construction management and at first it may seem overwhelming. But it’s important to remember that eventually, you will understand it all.

I don’t know if there are many other work environments where you can work directly with experienced people side by side and get their advice and support around the clock.

What are the best and hardest bits of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is undoubtedly achieving practical completion on a project. There is nothing quite as fulfilling as concluding a project and witnessing the client’s satisfaction with the end result. The most challenging part, without a doubt, is the snagging process.

For someone coming through the school system now, what advice do you have about choosing a construction-related career?

If you choose not to pursue a trade route, you may consider enrolling in a construction-related college course, such as a Level 3 program in construction and the built environment. Successfully completing such a course can serve as a stepping stone towards obtaining a degree in a construction-related field.

It is vital to engage in thoughtful introspection regarding your aspirations, absorbing knowledge from diverse sources. Right from the outset, I encourage you to reach out to companies offering apprenticeships. While this can be a daunting prospect for a young person, a simple phone call or email can set you on the path to pursue the career you want.

What one thing would you change to make finding a career in the built environment sector easier?

I think involving construction companies in promoting what they do to schools and other educational organisations would be helpful for young people to understand the number of possible careers in this sector. At the moment there is little visibility of the options that the sector offers and the fulfilment you can get from a construction career.