Universities are struggling to attract students on to vocational construction courses. Recent course closures are symptomatic of the difficulty in filling places, particularly as the professional engineering qualifications now require a four-year MEng degree – the extra year can deter those seeking an early start to earning. Entry requirements are dropped to ensure student numbers are maintained, but this leads to criticism of graduate quality. And the popular "sandwich" courses offered by old-style polytechnic colleges have been cut dramatically, despite their popularity among employers.
The large employers have recognised the importance of establishing links with universities, and sponsorship schemes and work placement agreements are now in place with both contractors and consultants. Some of these arrangements see classfuls of students spending entire weekends drinking and partying at company expense, with the occasional building visit or psychometric test. The net result for the lucky few following the preferred courses is a guarantee of secure employment.
Demand for school-leavers and graduates is high in construction, and starting salaries compare favourably with other sectors. However, with seniority, salaries rise steadily but not necessarily spectacularly. This aspect is, perhaps, one of the industry's traditional drawbacks – it is not well-paid, and generally exists on narrow profit margins. So although a few fortunate individuals may find their fortune, even a partner of a flourishing practice cannot expect to retire to a life of well-earned luxury at 52.
But money is not everything, and the industry needs to promote its positive aspects more forcefully.
Which of us has not left our name indelibly inscribed somewhere on our projects?
The most tangible form of job satisfaction is the gratification of being able to touch something you have built. What paper-pusher in finance can claim the same form of satisfaction? Whether the project is large and visible – the Millennium Dome, the second Severn crossing – or less visible but no less substantial – the Jubilee Line Extension, underpinning the British Museum – construction is about a physical product. Which of us has not left our name indelibly inscribed somewhere on our projects? Mine is scrawled on a hidden bit of fabric at the dome where I worked as project manager. It does not matter that no one will see it. Knowing it is there gives me a frisson of achievement, of possession about the project.
Another attraction is the variety of work available. Every construction project is unique in its own way. Sure, building 232 identical new homes is repetitive, but each house sits on a slightly different patch of ground, and you never know what you might find beneath each one. In addition, the human effort that goes into building each house means uniformity is not a foregone conclusion.
An office block designed to be generic can never be entirely so as each site has its own geotechnical and adjacency issues. Even if you are designing your 15th swimming pool in two years, there's always something new to learn, some obscure piece of legislation to implement or some new product introduced into the marketplace.
And then there is the variety of people involved. Clients vary from the sort that like to be involved and march around site in a hard hat to those that turn up only to cut the ribbon on opening day. Designers range from the phenomenally flighty, through the excruciatingly arrogant via the irritatingly intense, to the particularly pedantic. There are builders of the old school that know more about concrete than any sane person would ever need to know; engineers that actually get excited by piling; specialists who can expound on the latest fire code or the characteristics of a specific lightbulb, or quote the Latin names of 26 varieties of heather; and programmers that positively enjoy scheduling 500 different tasks. Look around your team and tell me it does not contain at least one slightly unusual person.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold.