Being good at your job may not depend, it turns out, on getting years of experience under your belt. In fact, spending quality time away from site may be just what you need. Katie Puckett goes back to university to find out why

Experience is what counts on site, not book learning. Sounds true - but is it? Not according to a research project conducted by Manchester Business School.

Dr Eunice Maytorena and her team interviewed 60 project managers from across the industry and asked them to identify risks on a real-life project example. “We know how project managers analyse and manage risk,” she explains. “But what we don’t understand is how they identify it in the first place, and this has important implications for project management.” The research team already knew the outcome of the example, but would the professionals spot the accidents waiting to happen?

The findings shocked the researchers, and their industry partners. “You’d think you identify risks based on experience, but we found that those who were more experienced didn’t do so well. Our industry partners choose project managers based on experience, but we found that generally they were just going through the motions and weren’t really engaging with problems. Those with less experience were asking questions and were able to identify higher impacts.”

This is just one example of what a fresh approach can bring to the very practical business of constructing buildings. And academic study can offer just this new perspective. When you’re on site, university life may seem a world away. But devotees of further education say that this is exactly the point. For construction professionals who choose to study for a degree, a masters or even a PhD, it’s a welcome opportunity to take a step back and look at their working lives in a completely different light. Further education can be undertaken at any time in a career and can be all the more rewarding after some years of practical experience. Many students begin their working lives on site before deciding to take a relevant degree, and often construction academics have enjoyed a long career in the industry before deciding to move into research.

Martyn Jones, principal lecturer in construction management at the University of the West of England (UWE), started out at Taylor Woodrow before taking a degree in building and graduating in 1974. He returned to his job afterwards, working on the first generation of nuclear power stations and then for several other contractors. In 1979, he decided to return to education. “I’d always been interested in the academic aspects of construction,” he says. “It can set your practical knowledge within a wider framework, it helps you see the wood for the trees. A lot of practitioners have enormous knowledge of their part of the process but don’t necessarily understand where it fits in the scheme of things. Going to university encourages people to look at issues from a different perspective and to see the views of others, elsewhere in the supply chain.”

A university course is an opportunity to look at things from an academic viewpoint, to see how they fit together

John Barber, Centre of Construction Law, King’s College

Jones argues strongly that construction is a natural subject for further study: “I don’t see a huge barrier between what we’re doing here and what’s happening in the industry. Construction is such an intellectual puzzle, there’s so much to understand and so many issues to be addressed and resolved. There is huge scope within it.”

Industrial relations

It’s not all lectures and libraries, however. Jones sees maintaining links with industry as central to the course he teaches. At the moment, his research is focused on two themes: the effectiveness of frameworks, and sustainability. UWE works with companies on research projects and has a “consortium of employers” which it consults regularly on how to make its students as employable as possible. The 11 firms on the panel all have local bases and include Bam, Carillion, Laing O’Rourke, Turner & Townsend and Midas Group. Course lecturers attend workshops with these firms to discuss current practice in areas such as site, corporate and supply chain management. This information is then used to inform the content of courses.

And what’s discovered in an academic setting can feed back into the industry as practical advice. Maytorena is a lecturer and runs the MBA programme at Manchester Business School. She also began her career in the industry, though in a very different way. She trained to be an architect in Mexico, and worked on civil engineering, housing and shipbuilding projects for over a year before coming to England to do a masters and then a PhD at the Bartlett in London, focusing on decision-making in conversion projects. “I liked the research side of it, working with the industry and then transforming the research findings into practical advice for organisations. We tend to have quite a close relationship with industry partners but it varies from organisation to organisation how involved they want to be in the project.”

As opposed to Jones’ undergraduates, who come to him straight out of school, Maytorena’s MBA students tend to be in their mid-thirties or mid-forties and often have, she admits, much more industry experience than she does. She sees her role less as a teacher, and more as a “facilitator”. “If the students tell me a story that happened on site, and we start discussing it, it’s also a learning process for me. I suppose I have one foot in academia and one foot in industry. I can say, ‘have you thought about looking it from this perspective?’, and broaden their horizons.

Construction is such an intellectual puzzle, with so much to understand. There is huge scope within it

Martyn Jones, University of the West of England

“We give them a framework, to help them to think about how they carry out day-to-day processes. Students like that. They don’t have time to think while they’re at work. This gives them time to reflect on their performance and develop ways to improve. We’re always trying to question and challenge them: ‘why did you do that? What would you do differently in future?’”

Legal matters

In recent years, courses on construction law have also enjoyed great popularity. The law is traditionally seen as a stuffy, scholarly subject – something many lawyers seem to rather encourage. But John Barber at the Centre of Construction Law at King’s College believes it must maintain close links to the industry to stay relevant.

Everyone who enrols in one of its postgraduate courses must have a minimum of two years’ industry experience, and most students have many more. Barber himself, as director of the centre, spends half his time teaching and half working for clients of his own engineering practice.

“Most people here are dually qualified as a lawyer and either a engineer, QS or architect and involved to a large extent in practice. Without that, it’s difficult to understand the relevance of the law. Also, things we come across in practice provide us with examples that we use as problems.”

Students don’t have time to think at work. This course gives them a chance to reflect on their performance and improve

Eunice Maytorena, Manchester Business School

Without a solid industry basis, Barber argues, the subject can too easily become an intellectual game with no practical application for construction. “What’s seen as significant in academic circles it not so important with a practitioner’s hat on,” he says. “If you bring someone out of the law department who doesn’t know about how the law relates to construction, they take a completely different approach. There’s a key academic question about whether a nun who has gifted her money to the Mother Superior can recover it – of great importance to academic lawyers, but in construction not entirely relevant.”

Other academic questions can be made more applicable. One is about someone shouting an offer over a river, and the person on the other side not hearing it properly – what’s the resulting contract between the two? “The scenario in construction is a contractor saying he didn’t receive drawings that were supposed to be attached to the tender documents. The answer in this case is that the letter to the subcontractor had listed the drawings so he should have been aware that they weren’t there.”

Barber also tries to find real-life examples from his other life in practice to provide fuel for discussions in class. He recently got permission to use a rather thorny case involving an auger-drilling contract, which came to a standstill in the middle of a roundabout – not an uncommon occurrence but complex from a legal point of view.

“We were discussing who was responsible for the costs incurred, trying to reach a legally valid solution. The experience students bring is an important part of it. That’s very different from an MSc where you get people straight out of their first degree who’ve never worked in industry.”

But again, it’s the application of scholarly discipline to these practical examples that Barber thinks is most valuable. “A university course is an opportunity to take two years out and look at things from an academic viewpoint, to take an exercise and see how things fit together. That is its real value, apart from developing the ability to research, write and structure arguments.”

After their courses, students go forth into the industry with a more thorough understanding of the construction process to bring to their work on site. But what of the academics? Barber still has his day job in construction, but Jones and Maytorena are now a step removed. They work closely with industry partners, but it’s a very different life to the cut and thrust of projects. Would they ever like to go back?

Jones’ experience of nuclear power plants could come in useful in the near future, but when pushed, he says his ideal industry job would be in his specialist area of supply chain management – as a head of procurement for a contractor, for example. For Maytorena, it’s the site life she misses. “Never say never,” she says. “Sometimes I do get itchy feet, especially when I visit construction sites and start talking to people – I think ‘oh, I wish I was doing that again’. But I enjoy what I do very much – I like finding out new things, talking to industry people and seeing how I can help them. For me, there is no point otherwise.”