Bucknall Austin’s graduate entry programme had a sting in the tail this year: a networking event where the challenge was to get as much information out of the guests as possible.

Everybody in business must remember the buttock-clenching feeling of attending their first networking event. The prospect of stepping into a room full of dark suits and apparently unfriendly faces can be an intimidating one. Even experienced party-goers can feel the odd nervous twinge before making that first tentative introduction. So how would it be for eight fresh-faced undergraduates, more used to beery student bars than discussing property yields or the state of the East Midlands shed market over champagne and nibbles?

This was the challenge set to eight such callow youths last month by QS and project manager Bucknall Austin. The firm has added a twist to its graduate entry programme this year, styling it as an Apprentice-style competition called The Protégé. University leavers are not only competing for a job with the firm but also for the accolade of the firm’s best new entrant, not to mention a rather handy prize of £3,000. Having whittled down 200 initial applicants to 20, the firm held an intensive away day last month to decide on its final list of recruits. The candidates were then put through a series of psychometric tests, technical questions and practical challenges, which left Bucknall Austin with eight contestants.

The point of the networking challenge, the penultimate test in The Protégé, was to reduce this eight to three. The event in question was the 40th anniversary of Midlands contractor Chase Norton Construction. All eight were judged on the night by the information they gleaned from certain guests (they were given two names to target, one from Bucknall Austin itself and one other guest) as well as by the impression they made throughout the evening.

Surely Bucknall Austin was a bit nervous about thrusting an octet of untried students into a room full of existing or potential clients? “We’ve stressed from the outset that we’re looking for people with good communication skills as well as technical know-how,” says recruitment manager Stephen Reilly. “This is a perfect opportunity for them to show us that.”

Building followed the eight undergraduates’ progress from warm-up to wind-down: 4.30-5.30pm A pre-event pep talk and the first chance for the students to meet the face of The Protégé, chairman and founder of the firm, David Bucknall. Also present are recruitment boss Reilly and corporate director Phil Higham. If the students are nervous they are doing very well at hiding it. Even so, Bucknall offers reassurance: “I still go into a room with a knot in my tummy,” he says. “You don’t want to be manically wandering around trying to sell how great Bucknall Austin is. Most people’s favourite subject is themselves. It’s a bit like speed-dating really.”

Reilly gets in a bit of investment-protection by “warning” his prospective employees about the “dangers” of recruitment consultants. “You will get one headhunting call a day. They will say ‘x firm says you’re the best thing since sliced bread and want you to join’. Hopefully they won’t be calling before you get to join our company.”

The final, crucial, advice is to go steady on the sauce during the evening to avoid slurred speech or embarrassing moments.

6-7pm The contestants head to the function at the Metro Bar and Grill, apparently the place to be if you’re a face in property and construction in the West Midlands. It’s a narrow room and the heating is on full blast, adding to the endurance-test nature of the challenge: not only do you have to appear witty and knowledgable, you have to do so while controlling your sweat glands.

The task for the octet is to locate and then approach their two target guests and ask them a series of business-related questions (see box, below) while trying to get them to hand over that all-important business card. All of this will have to be executed in as natural a manner as possible, as they chat over a glass of wine – they cannot afford to forget that the overall impression they create in front of the guests will also be marked on.

Some of the students plough straight in while others hang back, talk among themselves and try to work out where their target contacts are. I bump into Thomas Williams, studying geomatic engineering at University College London. “I didn’t get all the information I needed from my first guy,” he says. “He had to leave. We did talk about triathlons though.”

7pm An hour in and some of the students are beginning to resemble meercats, heads bobbing up and down as they try to spot their targets. Others are composed and chatting freely with guests.

I meet one of the hosts, Chase Norton chairman George Marsh, former deputy chief executive at national contracting and housebuilding group Galliford Try. He’s offering some networking advice of his own to one of the students: “The rule of thumb is to come back with three leads after an event,” he says. “And there’s the elevator test – try to get across the key information about yourself and your firm in the time a lift goes up.”

7.30-8pm We’re near to the end of the challenge and I catch up with a couple of the candidates. Why have they agreed to undergo such a gruelling challenge when QS firms are crying out for young talent, I wonder. Michael Thompson, a student at Loughborough University, tells me it’s down to quality of learning. “These are things you can’t learn in a classroom. This is a life experience,” he says.

Graeme Kirkpatrick, who appeared to work the room like an old pro, had a simple rule that seemed to pay off. “I just said hello and then went from there.”

One of the students’ targets, Russell Lloyd, managing partner of Bucknall Austin’s Birmingham office, is impressed with the evening. “It’s been tough, but they’ve done well,” he says. “Usually we don’t let our staff out to functions like this until they have five to 10 years’ experience.”

8-8.30pm I snatch a few minutes with recruitment boss Reilly, who’s cock-a-hoop about the event: “Why aren’t there more graduates at networking events?” He adds that Bucknall too has learnt from the evening. “Pavaan [Popat, one of the eight] was quizzing one of our clients who hates using project managers, asking him why he held that opinion and what he was looking for from consultants. By the end of the conversation the client was really warming to him. That proves to us that we can gain as a business by sending out our people to these events, regardless of how long they’ve been in the job.”

8-9pm The students can relax now as they are whisked out of the Chase Norton event to a nearby restaurant for dinner. “That was really hard,” admits one as he makes his way to the restaurant. The challenge of schmoozing the great and the good of the West Midlands construction industry has finally sunk in.

The challenge

What the students had to glean from their guests

From Bucknall Austin staff:

  • Which office they work in
  • Job title and responsibilities
  • How long they have worked for Bucknall Austin
  • What type of networking events do they enjoy attending, why and what might entice them to an event in the future
  • Obtain a business card

    From external guest:

  • Which office they work in
  • Which key sectors they have in common with Bucknall Austin
  • Have they worked with Bucknall Austin before or how they are connected
  • What Bucknall Austin services might they use in the future
  • What type of networking events do they enjoy attending, why and what might entice them to an event in the future
  • Explore business opportunities for Bucknall Austin and agree a follow up action
  • Obtain a business card

    How did they do?

    In terms of the information gleaned from the guests the candidates all fared well, most scoring at least 70-80%. In terms of the impressions made to the bosses there was more variation. Some scored only three out of five with the external judges while one received a five (the comment was that the candidate was very professional).