To be the best, quantity surveyors must have proper site experience


The simplicity of the academic route into the quantity surveying profession is not compatible with the complexities of the construction industry, and this is leading to a dearth of talent at all levels of the profession.

If we are to resolve the recruitment and staff retention crisis we are facing, we have to consider quantity surveying as an 'experienced based' profession. Learning the basics of the job in a three year degree course is fine, but this in itself is not going to prepare new entrants to the profession with the perspective and interpersonal skills they need to be able to offer the capabilities and value that QS firms are so desperately seeking.

Campaigns by industry bodies are focused on increasing diversity and changing the perception of construction as a whole as a way to solve the industry-wide staffing crisis. This, however, seems to be missing the point of what is needed - what would be far more effective would be efforts to get the right kind of people in the roles that need filling. Nowhere would this be more helpful than in quantity surveying.

The route to being a qualified QS can take one of two paths, generally speaking. The one that seems to be most popular nowadays - the academic route - is to do A-levels and then go to university to study a BSc in quantity surveying. After then, in theory, after just three years, graduates will then go into a QS practice or work in house for a Tier 1 contractor to develop their 'on the job' experience and eventually become RICS qualified.

The other career path - the vocational route - involves starting out in a construction trade after leaving school and then, after developing the skills, studying part-time for a vocational qualification - such as what was previously an HND. This qualification can then be the platform to study a BSc part-time and eventually leads to having the qualifications to work as a junior QS. This process can typically take seven years.

The academic route may seem like a fast-track, but the reality is that it is still going to take seven years to get to a point where you have the experience and attributes needed to be a good quantity surveyor. The reason for this comes down to site experience.

Junior quantity surveyors spend a lot of time on construction sites, and if they have come into the profession through the academic route, they will probably have very limited experience of being on one. Many young people who choose to go into trades such as bricklaying, groundworks or roofing will know what they are getting into - the mess, noise, extreme weather and tensions that arise in the challenge to meet deadlines and get paid on time. And for some people, this environment is part of the attraction to the job.

Taking the academic route does not give new entrants to the QS profession the opportunity to spend time on construction sites. This means that it can be an alien environment - one that they don't understand the dynamics of and one that they find it very difficult to work in.

In my experience, a QS who has trained through the vocational route is going to have a far better start to their professional career because they will be familiar with the construction site environment. They will be better equipped to have constructive conversations and build relationships with sub-contractors, and understand the context for handling sensitive situations with the potential to cause disagreements and disputes.

This is why a junior QS with a vocational background is likely to have a higher value than one who has entered the profession through the academic route. As a result, universities should be looking seriously at how to give undergraduates realistic construction site experience during their degree course and prepare them for being on site frequently during the early years as a junior.

One of the reasons why many BSc graduates are unprepared for the reality of working as a QS is due to the way courses are marketed - and the way construction trade bodies portray the industry to those considering a professional role such as quantity surveying.

Working as a QS is usually presented using photos of people working in clean, modern office environments. If there is a photo of a QS 'at work' on a building site, the weather will always be sunny, the clothing will be pristine and the interaction will always be positive with a smile. There won't be a photo of a QS working on a rainy day on a building site located beside an ugly industrial building, in conditions that resemble a mud-bath!

Given this mis-match between the perception and reality, it is no surprise that many junior QSs throw in the towel after a relatively short period and instead opt for a profession that is going to give them the office based environment they'd been sold. This is detrimental to the whole industry as it means there are relatively few good quantity surveyors available to recruit at intermediate and senior level.

If you are working in a construction trade and considering a move into quantity surveying - or know someone who is - we'd love to hear from you. We would be happy to provide our insights and guidance on how you can succeed and make a positive contribution to the profession in future.

To find out more about this topic and any of the challenges facing the UK construction industry, why not get in touch?

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