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A picture of hard hats: construction work experience doesn't always involve being on site

Construction work experience: what you need and how to get it

Construction, civil engineering and quantity surveying work experience, internships, sandwich years and placements… discover when (and how) to apply, and how to secure your place on one.

Networking and speculative applications really can lead to an internship.

Quick guide: Search for placements | Work experience options | When to apply | How to find it | Application tips | What to do if you don't get any | Other useful experience | Graduate case studies

Competition for construction, civils and surveying graduate jobs is fierce, but industry-related work experience boosts your applications for these vacancies. It can help you do the following:

  • convince recruiters that you have a genuine desire to join the industry
  • give answers that draw on real-life industry experiences in graduate scheme applications and interviews
  • show that you can carry out work similar to that of a graduate employee
  • develop a network of industry contacts who might be able to help you in your search for jobs
  • develop the non-academic skills that you’ll need in the working world.

What’s more, after completing work experience in your second year, the employer may offer you sponsorship for your final year. This means that they’ll contribute towards (or pay for) your tuition fees and guarantee you a job on graduation.

You should aim to get as much work experience as you can, with different types of employers, to find out what suits you and give you a breadth of experience.

Find internships, placements and work experience

Types of construction, QS and civil engineering work experience

Your work experience options include:

  • a year in industry as part of your degree, sometimes known as a sandwich year, usually taken between your penultimate and final year
  • summer or vacation placements, usually aimed at penultimate-year students but sometimes to keen first years or finalists
  • unpaid work-shadowing, where you follow a construction professional throughout their working day to gain an understanding of their job
  • (potentially) volunteering projects, eg house-building overseas, or working on a university/industry partnership project that is run by your university.

When to apply for internships and placements with construction employers

Most formal work placements (eg sandwich years and internships) are offered by large employers who hire a sizeable number of graduates each year. These placements are typically open to students in the second year of their degree. Apply for these early in the academic year. Many employers are now putting deadlines of before Christmas and only re-open their placement schemes if they don’t receive sufficient quality applications. Many students we’ve spoken to who have left searching for placements until late in the spring term report having left it too late.

Ideally, start researching placements in your first year; it will be helpful if you are able to get less formal experience with smaller organisations. Smaller organisations don’t always advertise opportunities, so you may need to apply speculatively or to make the most of your network to find opportunities. You often don’t need to apply so early for work experience with smaller employers, but you should still factor in a couple of months for them to arrange something.

Organisations such as Step and ScotGrad provide internships specifically for graduates, advertised at different points throughout the year.

How to find construction, surveying or engineering internships and placements

  • Search on TARGETjobs!
  • Visit your careers service and work placement tutors – they’ll advertise work experience vacancies and be in touch with potential employers.
  • Attend careers events and careers fairs at your university and those held nationally, such as the Graduate Recruitment Exhibitions in London and Birmingham: they’re fantastic opportunities to talk to employers about work experience vacancies.
  • Apply to be the TARGETjobs Construction and Engineering Undergraduate of the Year and win an internship with Laing O’Rourke
  • Talk to your tutors and friends and family to see if they know of any opportunities.

Tips on applying for work experience in civil and structural engineering, construction and surveying

The same rules apply for work experience applications as for graduate job applications – see the articles listed below for help getting them right. Employers don’t expect the same level of technical knowledge and experience as they do of graduates. But they do expect enthusiastic people who can articulate their motivation for working in construction and are aware of current industry issues.

Research the employer and write about how what you’ve learned has made you want to work at that company in particular: reasons could include their expertise in a certain area or the recent projects they’ve worked on.

Write about how you have the skills to do well in construction. Reflect on what you have learned from your different life experiences and how they relate to working in the industry (for example, your time at university, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities such as volunteering and involvement in student societies, how you spent a year out, any travel). 

For a formal placement scheme, employers might ask for a CV and covering letter or for you to complete an online application form. Firms that offer these schemes will not welcome speculative applications for work-shadowing – reserve this tactic for small and local companies. If you are applying speculatively, you’ll need a CV and covering letter. Your letter should clearly state what you want and why, the skills and abilities you could contribute, and when you would be available.

Your university careers service or departmental work placement tutor will probably be willing to check your work experience application before you send it. Take advantage of this.

What to do if you can’t find a work placement

If you don’t get onto a formal scheme, there are other things you can do:

  • Make the most of any opportunities offered by your university: go on all study trips to sites and employers.
  • Go for labouring/short-term agency work (if you want to work in building surveying, try a part-time job in an estate agency).
  • Speculatively apply for work-shadowing (observation) or work experience opportunities.Tailor your application to the company (show that you know what the company does and the projects they work on) and clearly explain why you want work experience with them in particular.
  • Investigate whether there are any opportunities to volunteer on a charitable construction project, perhaps overseas: many construction charities require you to have experience, but the International Citizen Service (ICS) does have a youth scheme. (The ICS is not construction-specific.) There are a few gap year providers that place students on construction projects, but there is usually a cost involved.
  • Get a non-construction job in a construction firm – you may hear of other opportunities you can apply for.
  • More advice on what to do if you haven't got an internship arranged.

Construction industry employers like non-construction work experience

Every construction recruiter TARGETjobs has ever spoken to agrees: all work experience and all extracurricular activities makes candidates employable. Take up opportunities such as bar work, a summer job at the local supermarket, office temping, SU electioneering, volunteering, gap year travelling and so on and then sell it to recruiters in your applications for graduate schemes.

To do this, consider what skills you have picked up. In a retail role, you will have developed teamwork and communication skills and learned how to deal tactfully with tricky customers – these are all talents that a construction employer will be looking for.

Work experience advice from graduates who’ve got jobs in the construction industry

Wise words from graduates that TARGETjobs has spoken to...

Speculatively apply for work experience and get more than one placement

‘I secured a placement in my first year with construction company Wates’ international office, primarily through personal contacts. I was put in touch with the team in Abu Dhabi and I introduced myself and asked for a placement.

‘If I could go back in time to my student days, I’d get more work experience. I thought that because I did a placement in my first year I didn’t need to worry about it in my later years, but I could have used more experience to explore different career options.’

Georgina Naish, an architecture graduate who has now completed Barratt’s ASPIRE graduate programme.

Networking really can lead to an internship

'To get my work experience placements, I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn. I searched for "surveyors", "commercial directors", "construction in Dundee and Glasgow" and for anyone connected with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). Then I would message them to ask for their advice and whether they knew of anybody offering work experience. Muirfield Contracts actually contacted me to ask if I was interested in a placement. The Muirfield recruiter had asked one of my contacts whether they could recommend a placement student and they’d put my name forward.'

Ashley Dunsmore, a quantity surveying graduate who is now a quantity surveyor at Kier Group.

Try to go sideways

‘I got a receptionist job with Skanska UK over the summer and came across a placement opportunity for the next summer, which I successfully applied for. After the placement, I was offered a job.’

Alison Davis, a natural sciences graduate who is an environment adviser at Skanska UK.

Make the most of the experience you have

‘Be confident in the experience you’ve got, even if it’s not with a top engineering design firm; I did have a summer at the Highways Agency, but I’d also worked in a café and a shop. All work experience is valid and helps you develop useful skills, such as communication and teamwork.’

Emma Hale, an engineering science graduate who is now a chartered civil engineer at Mott MacDonald.

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