Redundant? After the initial shock has passed you will face the prospect of restarting your career – and that may be in a totally different direction. CM found mentors for three construction professionals looking for a new start.

Until November last year, Andrew Birchenough was a fit-out project manager at consultant Gardiner & Theobald. But after he was made redundant, he transferred his skills to a new client-side project manager role at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘I’d been pigeon-holed as a fit-out specialist, and once that happens, it’s easy to get caught in a particular line of work,’ says Birchenough. ‘But you can get great satisfaction from doing something different. People are sometimes reluctant to embrace change, but I’d encourage anyone to do it.’

From private sector to public, consultant to client, Birchenough’s job swap is an example of the type of career moves that may be possible for the thousands of construction professionals who have lost their jobs. For the individuals who can convert experience in one part of the industry to potential in another, redundancy might not be a confidence-sucking career dip, but an opportunity for a new start.

Of course, a sideways job swap isn’t easy. Professionals are steeped in the culture of their chosen field and may find refocusing on a different sector difficult. If they do identify an opportunity outside their existing sector, they’ll be competing against candidates with a home advantage. Although their skills may be relevant, convincing recruiters – and perhaps even themselves – that these outweigh experience and sector knowledge will be a challenge.

To help three job-seekers, Construction Manager invited them to meet with mentors from the industry sectors they are targeting: infrastructure projects for construction manager Eric Hutcheon; higher education institutions for Mike Gould; and the fit-out industry for Donald MacKenzie MCIOB. Talking to their guides, they were able to ask questions, get a feel for the opportunities and assess whether their skills matched the available roles.

The good news for the trio is that Birchenough and others have shown that such transitions are possible. ‘There are definitely still jobs out there,’ says Lynne Crowe, London regional manager for recruitment agency Hays Construction. ‘You have to think as widely as possible, and think out of your comfort zone.’

‘Certainly it is doable,’ agrees Ben Duffill, director of the Management Recruitment Group. ‘I’ve seen several “poacher turned gamekeeper” job switches, where a private sector consultant can take their knowledge of how to get best value out of consultancies to public sector clients.’

I was a client-side project manager for Sainsbury’s. Andrew felt it was a good platform to make an application from

Mike Gould

And the good news for the industry is that increased traffic from one sector to another can only strengthen overall capacity. ‘I feel more rounded and able to understand issues and processes,’ says Derek Carley, an architect who switched to project management a decade ago and is now associate director at Turner & Townsend. ‘If the industry encouraged it more, perhaps it would obviate the conflicts you get when contractors and consultants both say “but you don’t understand”.’

The recession has stalled whole sectors of the industry, but also thrown light onto previously overlooked areas that are still spending, investing and recruiting. First, the public sector organisations that still have a budget to spend need staff to spend it: housing associations, local authorities, higher education institutions and NHS trusts, for example.

Major transport projects – from Crossrail to the upgrades of Euston and Birmingham New Street station – are also ramping up client and delivery teams. In the power sector, there are plans for new coal- and gas-fired power stations, followed by new nuclear facilities.

The waste and recycling sector is also delivering projects, while spending is continuing at pre-recession levels on heritage projects.

And there is increasing talk of ‘green collar’ jobs, from technical roles in renewable energy to advisory positions for private companies and public sector agencies.

The first problem for any job-hunter is finding out which organisations are recruiting and where jobs are advertised. Journals such as the Times Educational Supplement and The Health Service Journal were once the obvious places to start, but now the internet has created job sites unfamiliar to outsiders.

We look for technical skills but it’s also about all-round calibre given we’re a client facing business

Rob Moura

For instance, as CM went to press, there were around 70 estate management roles at ‘For some senior roles, NHS experience is necessary. Each of the 447 trusts and health authorities has its own policy, but working for a contractor building for the NHS would probably count,’ says Alan Simmons of NHS Careers. ‘There is a fair amount of people joining the NHS from other sectors, and it can be a good option for people prepared to move.’

For some new careers, retraining will be necessary. To work on heritage buildings, for instance, an NVQ in conservation site management – covering traditional materials, archaeological excavations and the importance of preserving as much built fabric as possible –

is required. Alternatives suggested by the National Heritage Training Board are short courses at the Ironbridge Museum in Telford, West Dean College in West Sussex, or the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in London.

Project managers can study for a generic Prince2, or Association for Project Management qualification, certificates that could open doors in the pharmaceuticals, utilities, transport and defence industries. ‘A construction project manager should find it easy to get these qualifications. They’re usually good at engineering and problem solving, and financial management because construction margins are so low,’ says Peter Simon, an APM trustee and board member. ‘All that is useful to other businesses.’

However, redundancy not only removes networking opportunities, but training opportunities too. Gaining an NVQ is almost impossible without having a job and work-based assessments, and some training grants are also inaccessible. ‘When you’re employed, your employer gets funding through ConstructionSkills. But when you’re redundant, ConstructionSkills may not be able to help,’ says Laura Clarke, education manager at the CIOB.

One option is a low interest career development loan. Available through the Learning and Skills Council, you can borrow £300 to £8,000 from three high street banks.

I might have to widen my search, for instance estates roles in the NHS or perhaps a complete career change

Donald MacKenzie

If funding is available, Clarke suggests CIOB-awarded qualifications in site supervision and site management are a good option. ‘And you don’t have to be in work, we don’t turn people away,’ she says. Otherwise, CIOB members can contact the institute for advice on finding a course – at a university, FE college, or private training provider – that will enhance their skills.

In some parts of the country, help is already available for job seekers. The East Midlands Development Agency is funding Career Chain, an initiative that includes a job-matching website where companies can register vacancies and individuals can upload their profiles, plus advice and grants for training. ‘We’ll need skilled professional as we come out of the recession if the local economy is to be successful,’ says Andrew Morgan, skills and communities director.

For any job-seeker, the advice is to try as many job-hunting routes as possible. ‘Use everything at your disposal, including personal contacts and approaching local employers directly. And we encourage people to keep in touch with us,’ says Kate Waters, associate director at recruitment agency Eden Brown. Agencies might be placing fewer job adverts on behalf of clients, and posting fewer vacancies on websites, but many will be identifying candidates for employers less publicly.

But Mark Beard, managing director of Oxford-based contractor Beard & Son, says it could be the right time to revert to old-fashioned methods. ‘During the good times, firms didn’t mind paying £7,000-£8,000 in agency fees, but that’s changed now. If people want to get an interview, actually writing directly to firms might work.’

It’s clearly a tough time to be job-hunting.

A new CIOB survey suggests that over 50% of construction firms have made redundancies in the past year (see management p22). Vacancies are sparse and employers can afford to be very picky. ‘They’re looking for the 9 out of 10 candidates, not the 6s,’ says one job hunter.

The recession has also highlighted structural changes in the industry with a cold, clear logic. If you’ve been made redundant, it’s an indication that workflow in that sector has dried up, and looking in the same area for your next role is a bit like expecting the return of the property boom. The situation may improve by 2010. But if you decide not to wait, a job switch into a related sector could benefit your career in 2010 and far beyond. cm