To become a chartered surveyor you must undertake an assault course than can take years to complete. Success depends on guts, fighting instinct and the tough love of a good employer. In Building’s first APC survey, Katie Puckett finds out what help the top firms offer their raw recruits

While other graduates are hurling their mortarboards into the air, jumping into lakes and downing alcopops to celebrate finishing their degrees, it’s only the first rung in the gruelling ascent to chartership for the poor old surveyor. The real celebration won’t be for another two years or more when they’ve finished their Assessment of Professional Competence, or APC.

The RICS’ APC is renowned as one of the toughest chartership programmes you can take. The average pass rate is 70%, but this drops to 59% for the building surveying faculty. It takes a minimum of two years to complete and the final months are a full-on process of cramming in preparation for an hour-long interview in front of a panel who might ask you about any area of your chosen specialism.

It’s not an experience you want to repeat, so what help your employer will give you to make sure you pass first time is an important consideration when you’re choosing your first job. Building investigated 60 of the top 100 surveying practices to see how they measured up and set them some tough questions of our own.

To get an idea of the size of their APC programmes, we asked the firms how many candidates they had put forward for it over the past 12 months, and how many had passed and become chartered. Results aren’t yet out for the 2007 autumn session, so the ones here only cover spring this year. Between them, the 60 firms had put forward 519 candidates in the last 12 months, and 439 had passed. Building’s investigation covers about a fifth of the 2,500 surveyors who take the RICS’ chartership exams every year, and with an average pass rate of 85% among these firms, arguably the cream of the crop.

According to the RICS, pass rates do vary among different disciplines. Commercial property has the highest: 77%. The lowest is building surveying with that rather daunting 59% figure. Quantity surveying and project management were in the middle with 69% and 67% respectively.

The APC takes a minimum of 24 months, or 400 days. There’s no reason for you to go to your final assessment until you’re ready, but if you’re working for one of the big commercial property firms, you’re much more likely to apply for it after the minimum timeframe, and to pass first time.

Sue Roberts, operations manager at the RICS, suggests that because surveyors in those companies don’t become fee-earning until they’ve achieved chartership, there’s more pressure on them to pass quickly. Building’s investigation bore this out. Among the biggest firms, those that offered the commercial property and residential specialisms had notably higher pass rates than firms focusing on quantity surveying, building surveying or project management. King Sturge, Knight Frank and Drivers Jonas achieved 93%, 97% and 90% respectively.

Roberts has also noticed a 19% rise in the number of commercial property candidates in the 2007 autumn session – perhaps because it’s almost the last chance to take the final assessment under the 2002 version of the APC. Last year, the RICS reviewed the programme, upping the degree of technical skills required and extending the earliest you could apply for the final assessment from 21 months to 23. Until now, the two versions have run in tandem, although 90% of candidates in the last session took the 2002 APC. After next spring’s session, there’ll be no choice but to take the later version, considered to be harder and potentially slower. “There’s a real fear factor,” says Roberts. “People are perceiving it as a complete change, when really we’re just tightening it up.”

One of the most striking shifts in the surveying landscape over the last five years is the entry of legions of “non-cognates” – people who did a degree in something other than surveying. In 2000, about 3,300 people took RICS-accredited degrees and 13% of these enrolled through post-graduate conversion courses. By 2005, the total had shot up to more than 7,200 and half of them came from non-surveying backgrounds. Building’s survey shows how employers have embraced non-cognates – only 10 out of the 60 firms that responded ruled out putting them through a conversion course.

How much firms spend

When Building asked how many hours of internal training firms provided and how much they spend on each candidate, we found we’d opened a can of worms. The answers only revealed the diversity of training programmes and the anxiousness of firms to provide the most comprehensive support. Turner & Townsend for example, came up with the figure of £12,000 on each candidate, which includes “training sessions, workshops, mock interviews, travel, preparation, interview preparation, feedback sessions, mentoring, reviews and study time” – a pretty exhaustive list.

As the APC develops skills that surveyors use in their jobs anyway, a lot of training takes place on the job. Bailey Garner, which put 11 candidates forward in the past year, says that most of its costs relate to one-to-one counselling in-house, unquantifiable within its £60k annual training budget. Bel Appleby, HR director at property consultant Ridge, hazarded a guess of 50 hours training a year over the course. “But it’s meaningless,” she says. “I doubt that any employer will be able to give you exact figures on how much training support will be offered.”

True, it’s not an easy thing to quantify – not that that deterred all our surveyors.

John Rowan and Partners even submitted a sophisticated equation to calculate the hours of internal training: “(8 x 3 = 24 - diary sign off, etc.) + (8 - CA review) + (6 x 2 = 8 - mock interviews). Total 40 + internal best practice sessions (8 x 1 x 2 = 16) - 56 hours.” But informative though the answers were, together they presented such a confusing picture that we decided to leave them out of the table.

What we definitely weren’t going to leave out was how firms might reward their newly qualified surveyors. After all, when you’ve put in all that effort, you’d like a bit of recognition, wouldn’t you?

Rewards and tie-in clauses

Almost all the practices promise a pay review, and often an array of other benefits such as company cars, pensions and private healthcare. Sometimes the perks double up as tie-in clauses so candidates don’t up and leave as soon as they’ve passed. At Atkins and its subsidiary Faithful + Gould, for example, candidates are given £7,500-worth of cash and company shares, vested for three years, so they have to stay to get the benefit.

Although a lot of companies don’t have a tie-in clause, among those that do, the most common arrangement is to ask for a refund of the training costs on a sliding scale, depending on how much time has elapsed since the candidate took the exam. MDA, for example, doesn’t ask for the £620 worth of APC fees, but it does require leavers to pay back the amount it spends on external university courses – up to £5,000. Within the first year of qualification, candidates pay back 100% of the costs, 75% after two years, 50% after three and so on. Whether such tie-in clauses work is a moot point, though MDA says it has invoked its only rarely.

Of course, you could always ask your new employer to pay the bill. And perhaps that’s the most important benefit of achieving chartership – with the demand for skills at an all-time high, newly qualified surveyors are like gold dust. Once you’ve got those letters after your name, you can sit back in the knowledge that you’re one of the most sought after people in the country.

Dan Thomas joined Cambridge-based Bidwells in 2004 and passed his APC in project management last November, first time.

“When I started working for the building consultancy business, nobody had ever sat their APC as a graduate straight from university before. I was a bit of a guinea pig. I took the job knowing there was no training scheme established, but I got a good feel for the place. We had to start from scratch, everyone was learning. So I had a lot of support because everyone was interested in getting to grips with the process.

The best thing is that I was sat next to one of the 16 people who owns Bidwells. There’s a very shallow hierarchy here and a massive variety of experience.

I was sitting with guys the same age as well. There were four or five other people doing the APC across the whole business. We learned the best way to get through it is to stick together. One of the guys was doing commercial property, and there’s quite a lot of common ground on the ethics side or understanding the sector.

Now, with the latest batch of graduates, we’ll all go down the pub and have a Q&A session; we have an extra long lunch break on a Friday with a ‘question of the week’ that can come from anywhere in the business.

As a graduate, you’re always in demand – you can make a job efficient because you cost less. So you get to work in all different departments – I did some building surveying, some QSing, some party-wall surveying.

Halfway through the APC I got approached by a large firm offering £10,000 more, it was very flattering but I wouldn’t just take a job because it paid more.”

Judy Wu joined EC Harris in August 2005 and has just sat her APC in quantity surveying and construction. She is anxiously awaiting the result …

“Every month at EC Harris there is a technical talk from a specialist from a different department on an APC competency, and afterwards you have the contact details of the person who did the talk so you can go back to them. All of these workshops and lectures also count towards the CPD hours that you have to complete.

The hardest part is getting all the experience you need. I spent my 24 months training in the private residential team, but for graduates in the latest programme in the London office, EC Harris is piloting rotations over 27 months, so they experience three different sectors.

We have final assessment training sessions provided by an external consultant to practice things like presentation skills. There’s also an internal prequalification process which is like a mock interview, six months before the final assessment. That really helped. It is a simulation of the final assessment – you submit a document beforehand and have an interview in front of three assessors. EC Harris also run internal final assessment training sessions at its training centre in Milton Keynes on how to improve your presentation.

EC Harris has a database of previous questions that have been asked at assessments, so I went through those. Before I had my APC I had about 10 mock interviews from people in different business units in the company. My counsellor was a former APC assessor and he and my supervisor really helped – they’d stay in the office until 10pm looking at my critical analysis. I don’t think my company could have done any more, but if I could change one thing I’d say the RICS shouldn’t make us wait 21 days before we get the results. It’s been agony!”

Let Building be your APC Trainer

Today, Building starts a weekly advice column to help you sail through your final assessment. Every week, one of the APC experts on our panel will pose a fiendishly difficult question that you might encounter in the interview - and then tell you what they’re really looking for and how you can wow the assessors

Stephen Hateley
Director responsible for project management in London and the South-east at Faithful + Gould

Alastair Bloore
Head of management consulting and specialist services at Cyril Sweett

Dean Mills
Director at Turner and Townsend

Stuart Earl
Partner at Gleeds

If you’ve got a question you’d like the panel to answer, email