The industry includes an impressive range and 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 the construction industry for five years, having worked in various other industries/roles for six or seven years before that. I am currently operating as an assistant building manager for Willmott Dixon, constructing the new Dorset Police headquarters. 

Sean Van Buiten

Sean van Buiten has been working for Willmott Dixon for just over five years

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

  • At 16 I wanted to be a pilot, however that dream never materialised for one reason or another. I did look at construction when I was 18 and mulling over my university prospects. However, I decided it wasn’t the right time to embark on further education and a career and so chose to travel and work abroad instead.

My 16-year-old self would be somewhat surprised, more so over what exactly the construction industry entails.

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

I suppose when I was 18, however that was quite a brief thought at that stage of my life. It was only when I was 25 that I really gave it consideration when considering career options after I had finished working abroad.

Construction appealed to me as I am of a technical mind. Taking something from inception through to the finished product, having to navigate all the hurdles between and finally seeing the finished product was an exciting prospect.

Who or what helped you to get where you are today? 

The support from Willmott Dixon certainly has led to where I am today. Being given the “safe space” to make mistakes and grow from them has been vital.

I had a director for trainees who was instrumental in placing me in the correct environments to allow my technical knowledge to develop, which I identified early on as being something that I wanted to improve given my lack of experience in the industry.

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

I don’t think it did either. Construction is an industry that is so vast that there is really room for “a bit of everything”.

I found joining at a trainee level – where there was no expectation of previous qualifications – the right way in for me. Working out the ideal role within the industry would be teased out over time.

What was more important was having an open mind to being in an industry with forever changing goalposts, something that requires constant learning and development.

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

We all face barriers daily, some big some small. I am fortunate in that I have never had any large barriers to overcome that are out of my control.

By that I mean the largest barrier to development has been my lack of industry experience. Fortunately, this is a barrier that I can control and overcome through hard work and training.

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

I had no idea how diverse the industry is. The closest we got to construction in school was a wood tech class.

There was no exposure to what management roles exist within the industry, or to the different expertise required during tendering a job, delivering a job, the aftercare and every aspect in between.

What surprised you about the industry as a new starter?

The rules and regulations. Construction is governed by so many, and for good reason.

Perhaps this is becoming better known owing to recent high-profile events? However it really is a mammoth industry that requires a lot of understanding.

What are the best and hardest bits of your job?

The best bit is undoubtedly seeing the finished product, knowing that all the hard work to get there has been a success – that moment just before handover when you can walk round the building and know its complete…

But naturally the hardest bit is the journey, the coordination of onsite activities when there are multiple trades onsite is when it proves most difficult, often having to make quick decisions under pressure. Without that challenge, however, the “best” feeling would not be as satisfying, so they go hand in hand. 

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

Willmott Dixon

Potential recruits on an open day organised by Willmott Dixon

Everyone will always tell you to work hard and do your homework. While this is great advice, you need to understand what the industry is.

Try and contact some local construction businesses that operate in different areas – on the supply chain, contracting and the consultancy side. Ask questions and get a feel for the industry as this will give you a far better understanding of what is out there. You will then be far better informed and able to decide if there is a role for you.

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

A shift in attitudes of the industry and general knowledge of the roles available. This needs to be delivered in schools to allow students who are thinking of careers to give construction a serious thought.

Many times on career days I have heard people remark that they did not appreciate all the roles available within construction other than those traditionally thought of. It is this narrow perception that needs to change.