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Hard hats: construction work experience doesn't always involve site work

Construction work experience: how to get it and what if you don't

Construction, civil engineering and quantity surveying work experience, internships and placements… discover how to apply and what to do if the pandemic has derailed your chances.

Work experience and placements in construction, quantity surveying and engineering: The impact of Covid-19 | How to find work experience | How to apply for formal placements | How to apply via networking | What to do if you don’t get an internship

Whether you want to get a graduate job as a quantity surveyor, site manager, project manager, architect or civil, structural, M&E or other construction engineer, having relevant work experience will boost your chances. This is not least because larger employers will often offer placement students a job on graduating (and often sponsor their final year as well).

To get my placements, I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn.

At least this is the advice we usually give. The coronavirus has made it more difficult to get placements and internships. This article will therefore not only explore what placements, internships and work experience there are in construction and how to get them, but also how Covid-19 has affected the construction industry and what to do if you have no construction work experience.

Construction, surveying and civil engineering work experience and the coronavirus

Your traditional work experience options include:

  • a year in industry as part of your degree, sometimes known as a sandwich-year placement, usually taken between your penultimate and final year
  • formal summer or vacation placements or internships, usually aimed at penultimate-year students but sometimes at first years or finalists
  • formal insight days and weeks, usually aimed at first years (these are rare, but getting more common)
  • unpaid work shadowing, where you follow a construction professional throughout their working day to gain an understanding of their job
  • self-arranged work experience weeks, where you contact an employer yourself and ask whether they could offer you a week or so of experience (this is known as applying speculatively)
  • volunteering projects, eg house-building overseas, or working on a university/industry partnership project that is run by your university.

In the summer of 2020, many construction employers cancelled their placement years and summer internships due to Covid-19 and many smaller employers were unable to offer the informal work experience weeks that they normally would. Volunteering projects overseas also halted.

What’s happening in 2021 and beyond? As of February 2021, a fair number of large construction employers are running, or are planning to run, summer internships and sandwich-year placements in civil engineering, structural engineering, construction management, quantity surveying and more. These are designed to be in person rather than virtual (although Skanska does appear to be offering virtual insight days) and so it is possible that, if government guidance and social distancing restrictions change, they may be cancelled or postponed – but we think this is much less likely to happen than it was in 2020. Construction has been designated a keywork sector and employers have had to put into place Covid-secure working practices.

However, a number of big-name employers are not advertising placements. At least not yet. We think that some employers are waiting to see what the economic situation is like before deciding to offer internships. This means that a number of vacancies might appear in late spring/early summer for you to apply for. Or they might not. We don’t know yet and neither do employers. What we do know is that volunteering for a charity working on a construction project overseas is not possible, for the short term at least.

Our advice is therefore to try to get what industry work experience you can and gather evidence of your interest in construction and of your skills from elsewhere.

How to get construction, surveying or engineering internships and placements

If it is safe for you to undertake a placement or internship in 2021, you can find them by: a) searching for advertised formal opportunities and b) networking and applying speculatively to arrange a period of work experience. It is best to try both ways simultaneously:

  • Search on TARGETjobs.
  • Search your careers service website for vacancies and talk to careers advisers and placement tutors.
  • If you have graduated, or are due to graduate shortly, check out organisations – such as Step – that arrange formal internships for graduates.
  • Get active on LinkedIn: make contacts and let them know you’d be interested in any work experience they hear of (see below for tips on how to do this).
  • Attend virtual careers events and careers fairs run by your university, your professional body and by recruitment companies such as TARGETjobs – they are a great way to ask about opportunities and perhaps even be shortlisted for them.
  • Talk to your tutors, friends and family to see if they know of any opportunities – you never know whom they might know.

How to apply for advertised work placements in construction, civil and structural engineering and surveying

For a formal placement scheme, employers may ask you to submit a CV and covering letter by email. Alternatively, they may ask you to complete an online application form, which might include answering application questions and/or uploading a CV, and will usually include online ability tests. If successful, you will be asked to an interview and/or assessment day – in pandemic times, these are most likely to be held virtually.

The same rules apply for work experience applications as for graduate job applications – see the articles listed below for help with getting them right.

Employers don’t expect the same level of technical knowledge and experience from intern candidates as they do of graduates. But they do expect enthusiastic people who can articulate their motivation for working in construction (and for their organisation in particular) and are aware of current industry issues. 

How to get construction work experience through networking or applying speculatively

You can research companies and email them to see whether they can offer you any work experience – here is a step-by-step guide on how to do this. Admittedly, this sort of work experience will be harder to obtain than it was in previous years, but it is worth a try. However, only do this if they are not offering formal work experience schemes; if they are, they will want you to apply for those.

If you are not sure whether this sort of work experience should be paid or unpaid, check out our advice on the law around unpaid internships. If you are happy to and able to take up unpaid work experience, our advice is to make sure it is only for a short period of time; don’t be exploited.

Alternatively, you could create a network of people who might let you know about any work experience opportunities they’ve heard about, recommend you for a placement or perhaps even let you work-shadow them. If you think you don’t have a network, you do (as our advice feature on how to network with construction professionals explains) and you can expand it through LinkedIn.

Ashley Dunsmore, a quantity surveying graduate who is now a quantity surveyor at Kier Group, explained how she used LinkedIn:

'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.'

Our advice would be not to go straight into asking for a placement, but ask them for their tips or insights into the profession first. You’ll learn something and it is a bit more polite! It is also worth noting that Ashley also got invitations to conferences, not just placements, through networking.

Not sure where to start with LinkedIn? Read TARGETjobs’ advice on creating a LinkedIn profile and using it to network and build your brand.

Employers don’t expect the same level of technical knowledge and experience as they do of graduates.

What to do if you don’t get an internship or placement

Our advice is to take a two-pronged approach – and actually we would recommend that you do this even if you do get some industry work experience.

1. Gather evidence of your interest in construction…

…and use it in applications and interviews and on LinkedIn! You can use evidence from your course – for example, your project work, guest lectures, field trips (virtual if not in person) or joint projects with industry you’ve been able to get involved with – but don’t just rely on your course.

Get involved as much as possible with professional bodies – join your local student or graduate branch. Attend virtual meetings and webinars. Enter any competitions that a professional body is running. Take up opportunities such as contributing to the professional body magazine if requested. You could even volunteer your time to help organise things if you can commit to it.

Join a subject-related student society. If it’s not active at the moment due to the pandemic and you can commit your time, volunteer to make it happen virtually. Invite guest speakers to give talks, for example.

Seek out construction-related careers events, such as those run virtually by your careers service and TARGETjobs.

Keep up with news affecting the industry by reading the industry press, such as Building and Construction News.

2. Make the most of your other skills and experience…

…and use it in applications and interviews and on LinkedIn! Every construction recruiter we have ever spoken to agrees: they are more interested that you have the skills they seek than they are in how you acquired them. So, take any opportunities to develop the most sought-after skills. For example:

  • if it is safe for you to do so and there are opportunities available, look out for any part-time jobs
  • become actively involved in student societies or with your Student Union (you should be able to do so digitally)
  • practise with some new CAD software or learn a new programming language
  • consider becoming a course or faculty rep
  • volunteer or fundraise for a cause close to your heart (you can do so digitally)
  • any of these other career-friendly activities that you can do while under social distancing restrictions.

Don’t overlook your achievements outside of the construction industry; they could get you your job. Kate Poade, graduate recruitment adviser at Atkins, told us before the advent of the pandemic: ‘I am always surprised by the number of candidates I speak to who don’t think that they have any relevant experience, but then I find out that they are treasurer of their university sports team society, that they volunteer with a charity at weekends, have a part-time job in retail and acted as a team leader for a group project.’ Although some of the achievements she mentioned may be less easy to pursue than they were, the message is clear: anything you do can develop relevant skills. You don't need to do everything that we have suggested in this article, especially if you are finding things tough, but know that doing even one thing is better than doing nothing. Gain tips on how to write up your lockdown experience on your CV.

Last updated: February 2021.

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