A period without a job needn’t be a waste of time. Here’s how you could turn it into an opportunity … 

Readers of a certain age may remember a kids TV show that used be on during the school holidays called Why Don’t You. Others may only know Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ hilarious spoof of it, currently doing the rounds on YouTube. But in the old days, the message to children sitting at home watching it, delivered by teenage presenters in a bewildering array of regional accents, was literally, “why don’t you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead”. The show would demonstrate all the fun, interesting and often educational stuff you could be doing during your time off, from playing various sports to making jam sandwiches.

These days, for the swaths of construction industry professionals out of work, this message has perhaps never had more resonance. For the 160,000 who were made redundant last year and the estimated 216,000 built environment graduates who have not even got their first job, there are a range of things you could be doing with your time out from working life. The options could enhance your skills, open up new career paths, improve your chances of getting a job and, at the very least, they are all “less boring” than sitting at home.

There is no quick or easy fix. Some of the options, like doing an internship, could entail working for very little pay, while others involve studying for long periods and spending money on the course. But lots of options offer fascinating ways to spend your time and the prospect of long-term rewards. Here we look at some of the best, including quite a few you may not have thought of. So, if you are out of work, why don’t you think about doing one of the following …

Do an internship

A growing number of construction companies, from big names like Vinci, Mace and Thomas Vale to smaller consultants, are offering internships for graduates, spurred on by a campaign called the Pledge that Building magazine is supporting. The Pledge (www.thepledge.org.uk) aims to encourage firms to offer internships and advertise them (for free) on government website the Graduate Talent Pool.

The idea is to create work placements of varying lengths of time for unemployed graduates. The employer can pay your expenses only or, in many cases, a full salary, and in the first couple of months you can continue claiming unemployment benefit. It’s not as good as a permanent job, but it could give you valuable work experience that will help getting one later or you might even eventually be taken on by your internship provider.

This has happened at John Rowan & Partners, the consultant that launched The Pledge. Manager partner Stephen Gee says an internship can act as an “extended job interview”. His current intern QS Kingston University graduate Matt Stafford hopes to be offered a full-time role at the end of his three–month placement. But even if this doesn’t happen, he says the experience he’s gained has “really boosted my confidence”. Why not visit http://graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk and see if any of the internships on offer appeal.

Do an unusual MSc

“Some of the postgraduate courses out there might
surprise you,” says Jill Minter, faculty of engineering marketing manager at Nottingham University. The faculty offers some of the most intriguing courses.

For lovers of gadgetry and maps, the list includes an MSc in Engineering Surveying and Geodesy, a course that gives you a deep understanding of surveying devices and techniques, from GPS to photogrammetry (photography-based mapping).

There’s also a masters in Environmental Management and Earth Observation, which is designed to show environmental managers how features in the environment can be located and measured using earth observation technology. Or how about the Pavement Engineering masters? This gives you the technical knowledge to engineer pavements and pavement systems for roads, airports and railways. Minter says Nottingham’s civil engineering faculty offers funding support for many of these courses, and scholarships are available for some, so “it might be more feasible for you to do an MSc than you think”.

See http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/civil

Become a disaster relief expert

The Haiti earthquake in January sparked a call for built environment professionals to help with building emergency shelters and assessing whether remaining structures are safe. Soon, construction expertise will be needed for the new building work. If you would like to get involved in disaster relief efforts you can start by studying it.

Oxford Brookes’ Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP)offers a masters degree in Development and Emergency Practice.

The programme includes modules in development, disasters and risk, humanitarianism and conflict, human rights and globalisation, with optional field trips and internships in India, South Africa and Peru.

Bill Flinn, architect and builder with CENDEP, says: “At the moment we want to provide rapid shelter training for people to be able to help in situations like Haiti and we’re looking for built environment professionals to get involved.” Tuition fees are £7,020 for the full-time, one year course or £3,580 per year part time, over two years. They start in September.

In February CENDEP is launching a new course called Shelter after Disaster, subject to validation. It will cover the theory and practice of shelter after disaster, including development and emergency project cycle management, natural disasters, vulnerability and climate change. The PGCert course will run for one 12-week semester (February to May) and is equivalent to one third of a masters degree.

Visit http://www.brookes.ac.uk.

Get into adjudication

One area flourishing in the construction downturn is disputes, and particularly the business of resolving them swiftly out of court through adjudication. You can train in adjudication at the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb).

Robert Gemmell, course director at CIArb, explains how it could boost your career, even if you don’t go all the way to becoming an adjudicator: “A qualification in adjudication demonstrates to an employer that you can read a contract and are aware of the legal framework.

A professional qualification in adjudication is therefore useful whether you plan to use your knowledge in your existing career, or move into in dispute resolution as a consultant, party representative or advocate, expert witness or even a full-time adjudicator.” At CIArb you can start with modules one and two (both about £1,500), seven-month courses which will give you an understanding of adjudication, through to module four, which teaches you how to write a decision. CIArb offers a broad range of other dispute resolution courses too.

See http://www.ciarb.org/education-and-training

Learn long-distance

You could study all sorts of things that would spice up your CV, from adjudication and arbitration to a six-month course in sustainability, from the comfort of your own home with the College of Estate Management.

The institution, which is the sister of the Open University, offers a huge range of distance learning options. Ben Elder, CEM’s director of business development, says: “It’s about general upskilling. If two similar candidates go for an interview and one is on a postgraduate course and the other is just resting at home then the employer is likely to prefer the one who is showing an intent to improve their skills.”

The beauty of distance learning is that you could do it from anywhere in world, Elder adds, which means doing a CEM course would not stop you from taking a job in the Middle East. You could even do it on the beach in Thailand, theoretically.

Visit http://www.cem.ac.uk

Do a free course

About 70 universities, including Westminster, Cranfield and Buckinghamshire are offering special free courses for unemployed graduates after winning government funding for this purpose.

Westminster, for example, has launched a programme called Build Up, which offers a range of training courses, short workshops and projects for former students in its built environment faculty. The Build Up programme includes courses in retrofitting buildings, social networking, economic skills in a changing environment, project management, climate change and starting your own business.

Bijal Mehta, architectural assistant, recently completed a Build Up project that entailed studying buildings in Soho to assess how their carbon footprint could be reduced. She says it boosted her morale, as well as career prospects. “My outlook and strategies for dealing with my situation have changed, and I am looking at my position with a new freshness. I’ve recognised the need to value my time and use it more wisely, to attend more events, learn new things and make myself more employable.”

Why not check out what Westminster is offering at http://www.build-up.org.uk

What could an internship do for you?

Peter Jones was struggling to find employment in the construction industry after leaving university, but he has just been hired as full-time environmental co-ordinator after completing an internship at a building services firm;

“I graduated from Exeter University last summer with a BSc in geography and earth sciences. I started applying for jobs immediately but it was clear most people were reluctant to take on new staff.

“I would go to interviews and be told either that I didn’t have enough experience or that I was over qualified. It got to the point where I was going for everything, because I needed a job so badly. It was a pretty frustrating time.

“Then I read an article in the paper that told me about http://graduatetalentpool.org.

I had a look, and applied for two internships, including one with [building services firm] Lakehouse. It offered to take me on for two to three months and while the placement was unpaid the
company covered my travel expenses, which was very important because other firms weren’t offering that.

“I completed an induction and met a few people, and then I was given a project to research the company’s carbon footprint.

Lakehouse gave me access to all kinds of data, such as fuel and energy bills. I then put that data into the Carbon Trust’s online carbon calculator to see how the company was doing.

“From the results I made recommendations to the company on cutting down its carbon emissions. It was something that I had learnt about, but hadn’t done in ‘real life’ before, so the project gave me new skills and knowledge. I also got an insight into how the construction industry works.

“I must have done okay because just before I finished the project, they offered me a permanent job, which I was delighted to accept.
“Looking forward, there seems to be some work in the industry, and the government is always bringing in new green legislation, which creates new opportunities in the environmental sector. So I’m quite excited about my prospects - there are a lot of different directions I can go in from here.”