Sooner or later the market will come back and when it does we’ll be needing young talent. So keep hiring, says Richard Steer, otherwise we’ll lose another generation of professionals

Typical, isn’t it? For years the quantity surveyor has been the bridesmaid, never the bride in the construction industry. The unsung hero working quietly and diligently to ensure that costs are controlled and specifications adhered to. Then I glance at the evening news and see the QS’ name emblazoned alongside that of hovercraft operators, Scottish fish filleters and sheep shearers. The long-awaited migration advisory list is published and suddenly not only are we are needed and valued but apparently understaffed as well.

Oh, how quickly things can change. Just as the industry faces its biggest downturn in decades, the government suddenly allows us to bring in droves of qualified cost managers from outside the UK. The idea has been much heralded and welcomed and indeed I personally have called for greater recognition of the QS qualification. Unfortunately, timing is not this government’s strongpoint.

As next year’s undergraduates begin considering their subject options for college, how many parents will be pushing their offspring towards the construction sector? A QS course will be as popular as a Lehman Brothers’ job application form. This is not good news and although we are all worried about the short term, we should also remember what happened during the last downturn when we had QSs turning to taxi driving for a steady wage and a whole generation was lost to our industry. I can see this happening once more.

How many parents will be pushing their offspring towards construction at this time of doom and gloom? A QS course will be as popular as a Lehman Brothers’ job application form

We are being hit hard and fast by the downturn. A friend of mine who has worked in recruitment for more than 30 years relates how a small advert for a facilities manager vacancy at a private school would have attracted negligible interest in 2007. Last week it generated rather more than 100 applications. Good quantity surveying candidates with vast experience are being hired by the week rather than taken on as permanent staff. My friend also noted the downturn in project management vacancies, with several large contractors moving staff from their moribund housebuilding divisions into mixed-use, or commercial roles, rather than hiring fresh staff.

So, the idea of hiring graduates and attending the milk round circuit does not seem to be an urgent priority. I believe this is a short-term response which, in the final analysis, will prove to be an error. The need for affordable housing has not disappeared. There will be an election in 2010 in the run-up to which I predict the government purse strings will be miraculously released. And although we are suffering from a lending crisis that has applied the brakes to the commercial sector, at some point normal service of some type will be resumed.

We should not focus purely on domestic matters but look to the opportunities presented in a global context. According to experts in the emerging markets, there is a new type of Bric that will have an impact on the larger businesses in our sector. This is not the rectangular red-coloured product that used to be popular when we built houses, but an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China. These economies are still expanding and still need the skills we have to offer. Chinese retail sales rose 23% last month and apparently they are now bigger shoppers than their US counterparts. Retail construction may have died in the UK, but it is alive and kicking in Asia.

An ad for a school facilities manager would have attracted neglible interest in 2007. Last week it attracted more than 100 applications

Apparently the majority of Foster + Partners’ growth is predicted to come from the Bric nations and that architect thinks that it will need to be hiring, not firing. Back in the UK this may all seem a bit pie in the sky to a struggling regional contractor that is sitting on land it can’t sell and houses it is not able to build because an unsympathetic bank manager is unwilling to extend its overdraft. However we live in a cyclical industry and eventually we will all need fresh, young talent that has global aspirations, and we will need to source them quickly when the upturn comes.

The class of 2009 has three to four years before its alumni mature into construction management professionals that we can harness. If we do not stake our claim now, then they could well become lawyers or accountants and we will have lost yet another generation. Then, who knows, along with my contemporaries I will be thanking that far-sighted government of ex-PM Gordon Brown for the migration advisory list that allows me to recruit from outside the UK.