As chair of the RICS' Junior Organisation, Jacqueline Fearon personifies the young, dynamic image that the body is trying to promote in its Agenda for Change.
The rics sees Jacqueline Fearon as a symbol of its future. The bright, ambitious, Northern Irish QS, who is chair of the RICS’ Junior Organisation, has stereotype-busting credentials: she’s young, she’s a woman, she’s from Belfast – and she loves being a surveyor. In short, she embodies the image of a modern, dynamic, diverse profession that the 130-year-old body is so keen to project through its Agenda for Change programme of reform.

Members are to vote on 22 March on whether to accept a radical overhaul of their professional body’s structure, accountability and profile. The Agenda for Change proposals have been controversial, not least for QSs, who feared their influence would be diluted if the seven divisions were replaced by 16 faculties. The RICS will have a new regional structure and a smaller international council instead of the 80-strong national one. Thirty-one-year-old Fearon, who will take up a post on the new resources and strategy board in 2001, can’t wait to get cracking. “There is going to be change; let’s get on with it, see how it works and deal with the issues as they come up.”

It is easy to see why the RICS is a fan of Fearon. Immaculately groomed and dressed in a dark suit, she looks more like a City professional than a surveyor. But then that is a key element of the Agenda for Change – the RICS wants surveyors to be recognised as top-flight professionals, with the same status and place at clients’ boardroom tables as management consultants, lawyers and accountants. “We need to get the message across that it’s a class profession to belong to. That it is not just about going out in a hard hat and getting cold and wet, but is a broad-ranging career that involves property, construction and finance,” says Fearon.

Pushing for change

Fearon has obviously had a good experience of being a QS, and she is the first to admit that she has been lucky. “I remember in university lectures, they used to say QSs were going to be obsolete in five years as technology and industry moved on,” she says. “Luckily, I worked first for a young dynamic firm that saw the benefits of marketing and being proactive in business.”

That firm was Denis Rooney Associates, where she was a QS for nine years before moving to Morrison Homes, the residential division of Scottish firm Morrison Construction, to run regional operations in Ireland. Fearon describes the move to the client’s side as “a vertical learning curve”, but says this exemplifies the flexibility of the career. “A QS’s training is so diverse in all aspects of the construction industry that you can fit into other areas of the development process,” she says.

Her palpable enthusiasm for her current job, which involves developing city-centre and waterfront apartments, is no doubt fuelled by Ireland’s residential property boom. “It is a good sector to be in at the moment,” she says.

Despite the demands of her job, Fearon has found time to play a key role in the three-year consultation process that has resulted in the Agenda for Change. As chair of the Junior Organisation, which represents surveyors under the age of 33, she has sat on working parties that have thrashed out surveyors’ criticisms of and aspirations for the RICS. An outspoken contributor to heated debates in the council chamber, she has got many issues on the agenda – including a commitment from the RICS to safeguard the Junior Organisation’s lobbying power. She sought commitments from the RICS to take a tougher stance on accrediting university courses and to ensure that these are more structured and benefit from stronger links with the RICS.

She also supported proposals to open up the profession to those with other degrees, as well as NVQs and HNDs: “We should welcome people from other industries; after all, you don’t need a law or accountancy degree to become a solicitor or an accountant. It’s more important that the professional structure is there both during the course and after it.”

So, what has inspired Fearon’s engagement with the RICS, when many QSs have felt that it is not relevant to their branch of surveying? She devotes most weekends and many evenings to it, but other QSs are grumbling about the hike in subscriptions that will accompany Agenda for Change, from £232 a year to £295. She attributes QSs’ apathy to a lack of awareness of the services the RICS can provide. The main concern for members is what value they get for their subscription.

“It is up to the RICS to promote better the services it provides,” she says. “When you get involved and stay involved, it is a huge area of training and self-development. You learn skills you could not buy on a management course: boardroom techniques, how to chair meetings, how to take part in structured debate, public speaking. It is great to network. You experience the huge diversity of the profession and meet people from all over the country.”

Need for more women

Fearon’s enthusiasm for the RICS seems genuine, if a little cloying. She has clearly gained confidence, poise and professional fulfilment from her role at the RICS, benefits that the male domination of her profession might have denied her. She never dared hope for it at the start of her career, although she says her minority status has spurred her on to make her mark. “I would never have thought I was a natural, never aspired to be president of the Junior Organisation. But people said: ‘You have to do it, you’re a woman, you have to show it can be done’.”

Although she knew that few women became surveyors, nothing prepared her for her first day of lectures at the University of Ulster. She came straight from an all-girls convent school in Newry to a degree course where only one in 30 students was female. “It was quite a shock. I went through the door and there were all these guys. I had no idea that only 3% of QSs in the whole of the UK were women.”

So, why did she become a QS? “I don’t think anyone decides to be a QS,” she says, with a wry smile. “Careers information was very

poor when I was at school. I wanted to be involved in a career that was fast-moving and project-led. I liked the idea of being outside and not deskbound, not doing the same job every day.”

She hopes more women will enter the profession, to redress an imbalance she feels does it no favours. “Men and women think differently and you need that balance in any profession. Project teams benefit from women’s input – women can read situations well and manage people well,” she says. The lack of women and ethnic minorities in the profession is an issue that Agenda for Change is intended to tackle.

Wherever her career takes her, Fearon says, she will rely on the RICS to provide a network of advice and support. “That can only happen if Agenda for Change goes through, because we work in a changing industry and the profession has to be there to support that change.”

Personal effects

What do you do to relax? Yoga and contemporary dance. What’s your favourite building? Queen’s University in Belfast. What kind of music do you like Chill-out music. What book are you reading? The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. What car do you drive? Range Rover Freelander. What’s your favourite place in the world? Slieve Gullion mountain in Co Armagh. It’s peaceful and brings me home.