We can easily teach you technical skills. It is harder to teach you the interpersonal skills you need to succeed.
Students on construction, civil engineering and quantity surveying degrees are sometimes surprised that technical knowledge won’t, by itself, get them a graduate job in the construction industry. Recruiters are just as, if not more, interested in discovering whether you have the non-technical skills and qualities to contribute to the successful completion of a project.
‘We can easily teach you technical skills,’ says Emma Simpson, early careers talent partner at ISG. ‘It is harder to teach you the interpersonal skills you need to succeed – and we can’t teach you the work ethic that gets you out of bed in the morning.’
However, you don’t have to be the finished article; you just need to show that you have the potential to further develop skills through the training you receive on the job.
Extracurriculars teach you a lot
Fitting in extracurricular activities around your studies is one of the best ways to boost your employability after graduation. Emma echoes many of the construction recruiters we’ve spoken to over the years when she says: ‘I’d rather take through to interview a candidate who has a 2.2 but has been involved with student societies and had a part-time job than a candidate who has a first but has done nothing but study.’
The top non-technical skills construction employers seek
We asked Emma to take us through some of the most common non-technical skills sought in graduate candidates for construction, engineering and surveying jobs – and, crucially, to explain how they might be assessed at interview and assessment day.
Why you need it: ‘In construction, new technologies and techniques are frequently being introduced; many of the situations and challenges facing construction professionals haven’t always been experienced before,’ says Emma.
How it is assessed: Like many construction companies, ISG mainly tests problem solving through its assessment centre. ‘We use group exercises to elicit problem-solving abilities,’ Emma says. ‘We set scenarios that candidates are likely to face while working on a real-life project. We are interested in how candidates think through the challenges they are faced with and also what sort of decisions they will make when they haven’t got all of the information that they’d like.’
Other ways in which your problem-solving skills might be assessed by construction companies are through competency-based questions, such as ‘Tell me about a time when you worked in a team to solve a problem’, or hypothetical work-based situations, such as ‘What would you do if a burst water pipe delayed work?’.
‘We often find that students who have work experience in high-pressure jobs, such as roles in customer service or retail, have great examples of times when they have encountered problems and had to fix them,’ says Emma. But you could also use examples from your course or extracurriculars to answer these sorts of questions.
At some employers, you may be given a technical exercise, designed to test your problem-solving approaches.
Why you need them: Communication is the cornerstone of getting the job done. ‘Graduates aren’t always aware of the different types of communication they need in the construction industry,’ says Emma. ‘The way in which they speak to someone internally should be different from people in the supply chain and different from the client, for example.’ Verbal and written communication are equally important.
How they are assessed: ‘We do look at how candidates write their applications and their spelling, punctuation and grammar,’ says Emma. ‘If I have two candidates with equal skills and work experience, I will always put through the candidate with the best written application first.' It is worth refreshing your understanding of basic punctuation and grammar before you apply. When it comes to written communication, do not rely on technology – spellcheckers and grammar checkers do not always get it right.
Your communication skills are also seen in action during the interview and assessment centre stages of the recruitment process. Some construction employers set written communication tasks, such as in-tray exercises, but in most cases assessment centres and interviews focus on verbal communication.
‘Candidates who have been involved with student societies and had part-time jobs are typically more confident in their communication,’ Emma says. However, she suggests that another way to prepare for the workplace is to read industry news websites and publications, as it makes you more comfortable with industry jargon.
Why you need these qualities: ‘Without the support of our customers and of our supply chain, we wouldn’t exist as a company,’ Emma tells us. As construction is an industry in which a number of organisations work together, positive relationships are key to success. ‘A lot of good relationships are built on your understanding of different roles, on how you communicate with others, on how you treat others and on how you present yourself: as responsible, reliable and so on,’ says Emma. ‘It’s far easier to break a reputation than to build one!’
How they are assessed: Your relationship-building and teamworking potential is most closely observed at assessment centre and interview. ‘At interview, we could ask candidates for examples of when they have worked in teams or when they have made errors and corrected them,’ says Emma. ‘But we also look at how candidates work together in the group exercise and how they interact with people from different levels of the business: from our current graduates to our senior professionals to our receptionists.’
The beginning of a good reputation during the recruitment process comes down to conveying a professional attitude in person, over the phone or via video platform. Don’t attend an in-person assessment centre in jeans and a T shirt and immediately start looking for a place to charge your phone; don't wear your pyjamas to a virtual assessment centre. A first impression can stick, even if you don't end up working at that employer. ‘Construction companies work very closely with one another,’ Emma points out. ‘The chances are you could come into contact with us as a client or a contractor when working at another organisation.’
Why they are needed: Influencing abilities – that is, to persuade, to get ‘buy in’ and to inspire confidence – are essential for navigating the competing demands and priorities of different parties on a construction project. ‘Influencing starts with understanding the requirements that the other party has and our own ability to fulfil them,’ says Emma. ‘If requests are hard to meet because of other factors, it is about giving other, more feasible options and helping the other party come to the best conclusion.’ Your relationship-building skills, the reputation you develop within the business and your approach to problem-solving are key factors in your ability to influence.
How they are assessed: ‘The group activity in our assessment centre is where we see potential strong influencers come to the fore,’ says Emma. ‘In our group exercise, like many others in construction, there is a lot of detail to absorb. The strongest influencers can spot the potential issues and come up with solutions or turn them into positives. They suggest alternative solutions and help the discussion reach the best conclusions. It’s notable that the best influencers aren’t necessarily the obvious leaders – they are often the quieter ones, who take the time to assess the situation from all sides and think outside the box.’
Influencing skills may also be assessed at interview, either through a competency question such as ‘Tell me about a time when you had to persuade someone around to your point of view’ or through a hypothetical question, such as ‘How would you react if the client wanted to change the design?’
Why you need it: ‘Different companies may expect different levels of commercial awareness from candidates,’ says Emma. ‘We want candidates to have a basic understanding of how their role fits into the project as a whole and how their actions would affect the profitability of a project or our company. We would also expect them to have a general awareness of how macro-political and economic events and trends could affect the industry: for example, we’d expect them to know something about skills shortages, sustainability and whatever is hitting the headlines.’ Following industry news, regularly Googling construction news and following relevant accounts on Twitter will help you no end.
How it is assessed: Emma says that, at her company, you are unlikely to be asked detailed commercial awareness questions, although you might be asked about your understanding of the role you are applying for. However, other companies may ask you more obviously focused commercial questions. It is also always good to indicate an awareness of cost considerations when answering hypothetical questions. You can demonstrate your commercial thinking when asking your own questions at the end of an interview or when making small talk at an assessment centre.
Why you need it: ‘Being organised and managing your time is crucial in construction,’ says Emma. ‘You need to be relied upon to complete work to deadline and show commitment to the project. If you don’t, it can have repercussions for the entire project team. Being organised helps team morale and it is the first step in building a good reputation with the business.’
How it is assessed: Some construction companies run in-tray exercises to assess this or track performance in online tests, but a lot can actually be seen from your CV and work experience history. ‘I look to see whether a candidate has held other long-term commitments alongside their study, such as a part-time job,’ says Emma.
Why you need these qualities: Candidates need to be flexible and adaptable in two main senses: firstly, being sufficiently flexible to change course and re-prioritise tasks if something unexpected occurs on a project; and secondly being prepared to relocate for each projects. ‘The projects that graduates work on can last anything from six weeks to upwards of one to two years and, like many construction companies, we can’t guarantee that projects will be in the area in which the graduate lives,’ says Emma.
How they are assessed: How you react to changing situations will be seen at assessment centre – for example, in how you pick up on new information learned during group activities and during the small talk/company presentations parts of the day. Whether you are prepared to relocate is likely to be directly confirmed during the interview or at offer stage.
What if the coronavirus has limited my ability to gain skills?
Recruiters do know that opportunities to gain work experience, take on a part-time job or pursue extracurriculars have been reduced by Covid-19. It would be unusual if they didn’t take that into consideration when assessing your suitability for a graduate job. However, there are ways in which you can develop your skills while social distancing – here’s a list of socially distanced career-friendly activities to give you ideas. Check out, too, our tips on how to write up your lockdown experience on your CV and answer interview questions about it.