Entering construction as a graduate will stand you in better stead than jumping right in and learning on the job. Even the lack of on-site experience can work to your advantage, says graduate QS Richard Devoy

Last year, on my first project as a graduate site manager, the afternoon banter turned to the backgrounds of the team. I spent five years studying construction engineering management at Loughborough university before joining Shepherd Construction on a graduate management training programme. One of the guys who was older than me had gone enlisted at the age of 16 and worked his way up to site manager from “the tools”.

This guy said to me: “There’s no way someone like you, in your first year in the industry, could come and build a house, or take charge of a site as well as someone like me who’s come up from the tools with years of experience.” (I’m paraphrasing the actual dialogue.)

I replied: “At the moment, you’re right. But I’ll be a lot younger than you are when I can run it better than you.”

We were joking around, but I do think that a university education gives you a better framework to rise up the ranks. Many of today’s managers came up on the tools or on apprenticeships and gained qualifications after they’d amassed years of experience but the leaders of tomorrow are far more likely to have come in at degree level.

Many further education courses incorporate site experience, typically between six months and a year, and further education as continued professional development has been on the increase for many years.

Of course on-site experience is important, but you can pick this knowledge up at speed if you’re given the right opportunities. You’ve already spent numerous years listening to people talking about how things should go and their own experiences. When you’re fresh from university, you’ve got a good knowledge about the industry and the confidence that goes with that. You’re used to learning so you can quickly pick up information and use it. It’s only a matter of time before you put that valuable “classroom” knowledge into practice.

At university, you learn important skills, including teamwork, and you’re given the techniques you need to discuss a problem and reach your own conclusions. You’re working to deadlines and you’re in charge of your own work and work ethic. You’re not in the industry being indoctrinated into using traditional methods, so when you do get there, you can make your own mind up. You can recognise the strengths of the current ways of working but you can see how to improve them from your own learning.

When they’re recruiting, employers may value someone who has been working four days a week and gained a qualification on day release. They’ve got more idea of how the business is run and functions on a day-to-day basis. But on the other hand, if you’ve completed a degree without any reference to how your future employer operates, you have more freedom of thought and you can come at it from different angles.

As an industry we are adopting “new” techniques that have long been proven in other industries; lean techniques to shorten programme times, value engineering to decrease overall costs and even alternative management techniques to improve the health and safety of construction workers.

Chartership qualifications recognise this. Now you can apply for CIOB chartership after studying an accredited degree and completing a national vocational qualification at level four or higher. You may not achieve chartered status, if you’re not ready, but it is a step in the right direction.

What would make a university education an even better springboard is if there were a more structured approach to training placements throughout the course. Rather than just spending a year in industry, relieving someone’s workload, experience could be spread out – three-month chunks in different disciplines, say, such as planning, site management and surveying, so you learn something, put it into practice and then go back and learn more.

If practical experience were better integrated into courses, there wouldn’t necessarily be a need for graduate placement programmes, and graduates could move into their chosen field straight away. Of course, you should expect to come in at assistant level and prove your worth, but you could make the transition to, say, site manager within one or two years.

With the much publicised shortage of qualified staff at management level, surely graduates should be encouraged to progress as fast as possible? Entering the construction industry with limited on-site knowledge should not be seen as a barrier but as a starting point. The scope for success is high and the challenges exciting.

Impress your boss - A bluffer’s guide to … the R word

Why is recession in the news?

Last week people who know about these things warned that the construction industry could go into recession soon. The Construction Products Association said there was a serious risk of it happening in 2008 and stretching into 2009.

What would actually happen if it did?

Depends how bad it is. Some recessions aren’t that severe, like the one in the US in 2001. But if we do feel the effects, clients will have less money to spend building things, so we’ll all have less work to do. If there’s a major lack of work, we might see another R word –

Sounds scary … So how will we know if we’re in a recession?

Officially, we’re in a recession if we have two consecutive quarters where output doesn’t grow. So those who follow such things will let us know. The problem is that it takes them a while to get the data. So we may not know we’re in a recession until after the event.

So why are we in this mess?

It’s all down to the credit crunch.

Sounds painful. What caused it?

It started when US banks all decided to offer mortgages worth billions of dollars to people who couldn’t afford them. Then they packaged up the debt and sold it to other financial institutions worldwide. Now the homeowners can’t repay, so all the banks are out of pocket.

What should I say when this gets discussed at work?

Tell people to chill out. Say that wise people are taking the long view. The long-term prospects for construction are good because people will always need somewhere to shelter and there are more of them all the time. So even if we do see a recession, it won’t be that scary …