With the shortage of talented QSs now at its most acute, practices are turning to more and more imaginative methods of recruitment.

Desperately seeking surveyors
Desperately seeking surveyors

Take a look at the job ads in this or any recent issue of Building, and the chances are you’ll find that a large proportion of them are seeking quantity surveyors. The reason is that the skills shortage seen across the whole construction sector is particularly acute in this discipline, and so companies must now spend a long time searching high and low for good QS staff.

Ed Badke, the RICS‘ director for the built environment, says: “The feedback I’m getting from industry is that there definitely is a shortage, particularly of skilled QSs who can take responsibility without supervision – the second- and third-jobbers in their late 20s and 30s.

He adds: “At the moment, there’s a kind of magic roundabout of surveyors moving from one company to another, but they are a limited pool.”

Paul Body, HR director of QS practice Bruce Shaw London, has also noticed the shortage.

“It’s extremely difficult to find good QSs with the right level of experience; chartered QSs are even harder to find – the people aged 27-30 who are going to be the next associates,” he says. “You try to be competitive with the package you offer, but it’s difficult even getting people through the front door for an interview in the first place; we’re on a major expansion drive at the moment and we’ve been using four fairly major agencies, but even they are struggling to find candidates with two to three years’ post-APC experience. Now we’re even thinking of going down the headhunting route, which you’d normally use for more senior staff.”

One reason for the shortage is that demand has grown greatly in the past two or three years, says Badke. But he adds: “It also stems from the cutbacks that happened in the early to mid-1990s. There weren’t many undergraduate QSs then, so we don’t have as many people coming through from degree courses then who would now have the experience that’s called for.

“It’s been a slow process of decline since the early 1990s when the economy wasn’t so buoyant; plus, a number of people have left the profession. That’s the thing about quantity surveying – it’s a very good grounding for a whole range of careers in construction and there are different careers open to QSs now that weren’t widespread before, which has further diluted the capacity of the industry: project management, for example.”

Body also blames a shift in attitude. “People don’t have the same drive to get qualified that they used to have,” he says. “If you finish a degree at, say, 21, it takes two years to get fully qualified so you should be chartered by, say, 24. But a lot of the people I’ve been interviewing are 27, 28, even 30, and still not chartered. There’s more emphasis now on work–life balance and less on having a career; that drive to climb the ladder of chartered, associate, partner.”

The skills shortage means employers are offering better and better packages to attract and retain staff, and this has pushed up pay steeply. The most recent Building/Hays Montrose salary guide shows annual rises of up to 8.8%, among the biggest seen by any discipline, with many QSs getting these increases without changing employer. Those with between two and six years’ experience enjoyed rises of 7% or more. Others are demanding – and getting – benefits such as a car or health insurance. “QSs are among the best-paid people in the sector, so the shortage is not necessarily a pay thing,” says Badke.

“Some companies will pay over the odds to tempt somebody away from another firm,” says Body. “We are trying to retain people by putting in place career development programmes, to show that we value our staff and are investing in them.”

He fears that rising salaries could squeeze margins and make it more challenging for firms to stay competitive in the future. “I think it has to have an effect,” he says. “Salary inflation has been buoyant in the past three or four years and it has to have an effect on competitiveness, especially as margins are being squeezed by too many firms chasing the pool of work.”

It's been a slow process of decline since the early 1990s when the economy wasn't so buoyant; plus, a number of people have left

He urges the RICS to work harder to attract people into the profession, and Badke agrees. “We need to make quantity surveying a career of choice,” says Badke. “Compared to law and the media, it’s not what people want to do when they are leaving university or choosing courses; it doesn’t have the cachet of law and the media, which school leavers see as sexy, attractive occupations.

“Within the built environment sector, though, people realise that it’s a well-paid, well-respected occupation.

“There’s a need to increase the pool of graduates and the RICS is addressing that in a number of ways: promoting the surveying profession broadly, working with education institutions to make sure courses are available and also running CPD events to help the development of postgraduate surveyors.”

Michelle Murray, a QS with 12 years’ experience, works at Todd & Ledson in Liverpool, mainly on retail projects. She says: “I look around the office and there’s a lot of graduates and only one or two people in their 40s.” Murray has been personally involved in making sure the current shortage is temporary by encouraging young people to choose quantity surveying as a career.

“We have a graduate programme and links with John Moore’s University, and we get a number of graduates. I’ve been involved this year in going on some of what they used to call the milk round, where the built environment faculty allows practices in to recruit people who are on the courses.

“We try to get them as early as possible – we get a lot of year-out students and we feel that everyone who is worth having has been recruited by the time they’re in their final year. We also try to attract students from other courses who haven’t decided what to do.

“I’ve spent a lot of time going into school careers evenings to make people aware that there’s this career available, trying to encourage youngsters into the profession.

It’s a fascinating job.

“There seems to be quite a number of undergraduates on the surveying courses; the key is to keep them in the profession once they’ve graduated by getting them involved in interesting jobs rather than just seeing them as bodies who are still working on drainage years after they’ve joined the company – they must be made to feel that they are an asset to the firm.”

Most firms are now simply hoping that this shortage will sort itself out in time as more graduates are coming through. In the meantime, experienced QSs can enjoy good pay and benefits as their employers jump through hoops to retain them, and less experienced people are getting great opportunities to take on responsibility – and the matching pay packets – that would otherwise have gone to more experienced staff. In short, it’s a great time to be a QS, whatever your level – but not a good time to be hiring.