Tips for Grads: How to break into the construction industry

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I recently wrote a post on LinkedIn with some advice I would give to graduates who are trying to break into the construction industry. As someone who’s confronted the cold face of the construction employment industry for the past six years, I’ve noticed a number of common traits when it comes to particular employment groups.

My LinkedIn post attracted some heady criticism. Here, I’d like to expand on the points I made and add some context to my golden nuggets of advice.

construction industry1. Stop being precious: go out and start lifting things. If you’re not willing to get your hands dirty, you don’t want it enough.

If you’ve applied for hundreds of positions and nobody’s got back to you, unfortunately the market is indicating to you that your services are not in demand. This will be a sad fact for those of you who’ve spent time, effort, and money obtaining a qualification, but it’s crucial that you know your audience. If nobody’s buying your product, you have to change your tack or you will die. Simple. If you really, really want it, go and get it.

I spoke to a graduate recently asked him what he was interested in. He told me he was interested in photography. Great! Take your smartphone and become the city’s construction photographer. Post all photos on social media, tag the construction company, find out who the developer/architect is and make yourself heard. Once you’re noisy enough the next step to getting an actual job with the company will be effortless.

This is a really simple way of combining your interests with your chosen career choice; a 21st century take on lifting block on site.

 2. You have no real right to manage someone unless you’ve done the job of the person you are managing. “Do as I do, not as I say”

A few people have pointed out to me that this isn’t correct. I disagree. My original post was directly aimed at graduates entering the construction industry. I refute any claim that a graduate construction manager will be a more effective CM than a site manager with ten years experience.

When reflecting on the ‘young buck’ vs ‘old buck’ scenario, I’m reminded of the park bench scene from Good Will Hunting. The scene depicts Sean Maguire, the psychiatrist (Robin Williams), schooling the young Will Hunting (Matt Damon) about the value of life experience over that which can be learned from a book.

It’s your move chief.

3. Internships are extremely competitive. Stop putting all of your eggs in one basket and start looking elsewhere.

When I say extremely competitive, I mean nearly impossible. It’s every Graduate’s dream; the internship with the big, sexy, household-name brand where they can learn to chew the fat, cut their teeth and let steel sharpen steel.

However, nailing one is about as likely as finding crude oil in your bathtub. You have to diversify.

If your desired role isn’t in demand right now, you may have to go outside of the construction industry in order to pick up experience elsewhere. Make sure you have a strategy in place so that you can navigate the inevitable shit storm and land your dream job five years down the line.

Top Tip: Try applying for companies that sell building products. They don’t pay the best but they’re always on the look out for Estimators and Sales people. After a few years as an Estimator/Sales person, you’ll have a good idea of the market, the material, prices of material, and will have made good connections with the suppliers (hint: they’re sub-contractors!). You can then approach one of your new connections about your dream role, or if you’re any good, they’ll approach you.

4. A university degree doesn’t guarantee you anything.

In the construction employment market, a university degree genuinely doesn’t guarantee you anything. It may allow you to apply for a certain number of positions, but the majority of the time companies still expect a certain level of real world experience, too.

I have yet to take a vacancy for a Site Manager or Project Manager for a main contractor where their pre-requisite is that the candidate has a Degree. That being said, this is totally dependent on the market. In some countries, there’s high demand for candidates with qualifications ranging from Project Management to Commercial Management, however in most Western countries, experience outweighs the degree the majority of the time. As is the case with most main contractors, a trade qualification combined with experience is more attractive than those with a degree qualification and no experience.

My advice to any young candidate is perhaps best demonstrated by an example of some of our top candidates. The most successful candidates I’ve represented had left school by 16 and completed a trade qualification by 18. They then went on to gain experience on site, move into management, and completed a degree part-time. These men and women are now their early 30’s and are ticking every single box on their CVs, ready to dominate the market.

construction industry5. Experience beats theory. Experience + theory beats all.

If you go to a gun fight with a knife, you’re going to get killed. If you have a whole arsenal of weaponry, there’s only going to be one winner. Think of your career as a game of chess; you can’t win with one move. You must make a combination of moves to catch the king.

Start thinking about your combinations.

6. Stop sending messages on LinkedIn. Put some PPE on, get out there and visit a few sites.

Most construction companies are crying out for eager and motivated people. Don’t be an email, be the person who walks up to site and is ready to work. I get messages every single day from Graduates pleading for work. Unfortunately I can’t help them all, though I wish I could (and I wholeheartedly understand their frustration).

My belief is that if you want to work, you’ll make it happen, especially throughout the current construction boom that the majority of major cities around the world are experiencing.

If you really, really want a job in construction, be so loud they can’t ignore you.

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