The number of QS graduates has almost halved in the past five years, leaving the profession facing a skills drought. How can it attract the fresh talent it needs?
Reading University's 15 undergraduate students on its quantity surveying course are feeling pretty relaxed as they go into their final term before graduation. And no wonder. According to director of undergraduate courses in the School of Construction Management Keith Hutchinson, all have at least six or seven job offers in hand. The only thing they have to worry about is which to take.

Four of them have even been interviewed by accountancy giant Arthur Andersen, which is prepared to offer generous packages to lure the right candidates away from construction and into its tax division – capital allowance consulting. Arthur Andersen will pay successful graduates £22 000 a year, topping the best QS offers by at least £3000.

The Reading students are not the only ones. QS students at other universities, such as Salford, Kingston, and Nottingham Trent, to name but a few, are in equally high demand, and even undergraduates on less prestigious courses find employers knocking at their doors. Students working for firms on their year out and A level pupils on placements are also being targeted.

Why? Because the number of QS graduates in the UK has plummeted in the past five years, leaving firms such as Gleeds, Davis Langdon & Everest and Franklin & Andrews to fight it for those that remain.

The figures behind the shortage tell an alarming story. The number of graduates on full-time RICS-approved courses has fallen from 1103 in 1994 to 692 in 1997. At Reading, QS course application numbers peaked in 1992 at 750 but, by 1997, they were down to fewer than 200. This year, there are only 15 final-year students studying for a quantity surveying degree, compared with 45 in 1992. In two years' time, only 10 will graduate from the course.

"There is a serious shortage of QS graduates," confirms Reading's Hutchinson. "We're not finding the quantity or quality of course applicants that we were even five years ago. Then, the course was 95% A level students. Now, more than half have NVQs and BTECs, which does nothing to dispel the impression among potential students that construction is not for academic high-flyers."

This image of the industry could be one factor affecting recruitment. According to Peter Goodall, principal of the College of Estate Management, many of the brightest students are shunning construction and moving into business, law or accountancy.

The RICS recognises that the declining demand for courses has meant universities lowering entrance standards to try to keep numbers up. The RICS' assistant director of education, Nick Hudson, is worried: "On many courses, two A levels is now the standard entry qualification, and we've heard of courses that accept D and E grades."

According to Hudson, one way of raising the calibre of applicants for courses is to reduce enrolment numbers. The proposal is set out in the RICS' education taskforce report, part of its agenda for change programme, which is still being finalised. But with many courses teetering on the brink of closure, the idea hardly seems sensible –let alone popular – in an industry already chronically short of QS graduates.

Another solution is to attract top-quality graduates from non-QS courses. However, the time it takes graduates to become qualified once they have completed a degree in another discipline can be a turn-off. It can take five years. Cyril Sweett recruitment partner Andrew Hemsley says: "If the profession is discussing recruiting non-cognate degree holders, the length of time it takes them [to convert] is not exactly a great incentive, is it?"

To overcome this problem, the RICS is considering setting up a two-year MSc conversion course at Reading University to encourage non-QS graduates into the profession at postgraduate level. The proposal is being discussed with DL&E, Gleeds, EC Harris and Gardiner & Theobald, which are all keen to encourage such graduates into the profession if it results in good-quality recruits.

DL&E acknowledges the need for a change in recruitment policy. "Traditionally, we preferred to take graduates from vocational courses because they become more productive more quickly," says Michael Jones, DL&E's partner in charge of human resources. "Now, we're looking at sponsoring students on the MSc in Reading as one of the ways of recruiting the best people.

We recognise that some people do a degree for the academic challenge and concentrate on vocational training afterwards."

DL&E also gets around the dearth of QS graduates by recruiting straight from schools. The 18-year-olds then take five years to gain their degree through a day-release course, followed by the standard two-year period to get their RICS assessment of professional competence.

Cyril Sweett has had less success with 18-year-olds. Hemsley says he still finds recruiting graduates the best method. This year, the firm will take on five graduates with either a 2:1 or a first-class degree, but he says top-quality QS graduates are hard to come by. A few years ago, Hemsley was receiving 150 CVs a year, now he is getting less than half that. "There aren't enough graduates and there are too many places to fill," he complains.

Another tactic some QS firms are trying is recruiting earlier in the year. Currie & Brown partner Giles Harrison says the situation is particularly acute this year: "Graduates are being taken up by other practices earlier than in previous years." His firm now makes salary offers – £16 500-17 500 this year – in April, rather than waiting until June.

Other companies prefer to build relationships with specific universities as a way to pick off the best students before their rivals. Franklin & Andrews has close ties with several institutions, including Wolverhampton and Robert Gordon University in Scotland, where it sponsors prizes for dissertations, gives book discounts and offers summer work placements. Average starting salaries at the firm are between £14 000 and £15 000 in London and the South-east for graduates who "have the ability to learn fast".

Targeting potential employees early will allow individual firms to secure the staff they need, but to solve the industry recruitment crisis it seems inevitable that non-QS graduates will be needed to maintain the flow of young blood. Some may see this as diluting the pool of RICS-accredited QSs, others will regard it a necessary development – and a welcome one.