Elaine Knutt reports on a new diploma that is luring frustrated graduates into construction …

Construction might be a calling, but some people take longer than others to hear it. Simon Law, for instance, graduated in criminology before becoming a management trainee at MJ Gleeson. Anthropology graduate Mary Atkins was working as an office manager for Multiplex before training as a site manager.

Law and Atkins are among 30 “non-cognate” graduates – meaning that they have degrees in non-construction subjects. Both are presently combining traineeships and academic study under the Chartered Institute of Building’s new postgraduate conversion diploma. The two-and-a-half year course takes students with no practical knowledge of construction to within sight of the CIOB membership exams.

Fellow diploma student Ian Greenhough, a business studies graduate who is now working for Huddersfield-based consultant Howell Goodfellow, says that the indirect route into construction will appeal to many graduates

who miss their vocation first time round. “When you’re at school, it’s quite difficult to know what you want to do. I was pushed into doing an academic course, when I’d rather have studied something more vocational.”

After going in the wrong direction, he then chanced into his first graduate job, working in IT for the Halifax bank. But after meeting a friend of a friend who worked for Howell, Goodfellow started thinking that construction might suit him, and so he arranged work experience at the firm to fit in with his shifts at the Halifax. “After a month, they offered me a trainee site manager position.”

Since then, he’s never looked back. “It’s all I expected and more. In IT, it all goes on in a little box on your desk, but in construction you can see things being built in front of you.”

A small number of non-cognates have always trickled into the industry, and there are other study options such as distance learning. However, the CIOB found that it was fielding an increasing volume of inquiries about conversion. “Some were from graduates who’d had other jobs and didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk, and about half were from graduates who weren’t yet employed,” says Tricia Sharpe, CIOB programme co-ordinator.

The conversion diploma was conceived to make the recruitment process easier for candidates and employers. The CIOB put together a steering committee of 15 employers including Willmott Dixon, ROK and Balfour Beatty, as well as trade associations such as the Major Contractors Group, to advise on the course content. The actual tuition is delivered by four universities with a strong reputations in construction – Central Lancashire, Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and Anglia Polytechnic.

The teaching is concentrated into one-week blocks four times a year, when all the students study together in one location, and additional assignments are undertaken in the students’ own time. At work, each non-cognate is mentored by a senior manager, and students also keep records to contribute towards membership of the CIOB.

Greenhough reports that the course was “pretty intensive – you’re working from nine in the morning until 10 at night”. But he definitely prefers the diploma route to distance learning or night classes at college. “It’s a bit like being at uni again. The group has a really good mix of people, we all keep in touch by email.”

The course hasn’t been widely marketed, although information is available on the CIOB and CITB-ConstructionSkills websites, and careers site www.designajob.co.uk. However, many students are actually recruited by word of mouth. “Employers often find that non-cognates apply because their friends or flatmates were in construction,” says Sharpe.