Impressive candidates were not necessarily the most outgoing or the loudest.
If you are applying for a graduate job in the construction industry – whether as a site manager, building services (M&E) engineer project manager, architectural technologist or similar – you are likely to be invited to an assessment centre as part of the interview process. What’s involved and how can you ensure that your preparation is top notch? What are the most helpful hints and tips to help you succeed?
When TARGETjobs was invited to attend an assessment centre run by engineering professional services employer WSP, we jumped at the chance to find out the answers to some of your frequently asked questions. Our invitation was a couple of years ago and so may not reflect the actual experience you'll have at WSP this year, but the advice in the feature is useful for any and all in-person assessment days.
During the pandemic, many construction employers have switched to virtual assessment centres, although they hope to return to in-person ones as soon as it is safe to do so. Head over to our feature on how to succeed at virtual assessment days to get tips on handling the technical and video side of an assessment centre.
What happened during the assessment day introductions?
The assessment centre began with introductions to the assessors – all directors of various parts of the company – and presentations about the business and the variety of roles on offer. This was followed by two graduate employees talking about their jobs, the range of projects they had been involved in and how they had worked their way up. ‘We came in exactly the same way as you. We’ve all sat where you’re sat now, so you will make it through the day,’ they joked. The atmosphere was relaxed and fairly informal and soon enough the candidates were looking much at ease.
What happened during the construction case study group exercise?
The 15 candidates were divided into small groups and given a project to discuss. The case study allowed the employers to assess the candidates' soft skills, including:
- how well they communicated their ideas
- how they interacted with the other members of their team
- their listening skills
- their ability to summarise the outcome at the end of the time allocated.
Impressive candidates initiated conversations, raised ideas, listened to others' suggestions, identified potential problems and effectively summarised their findings. These candidates were not necessarily the most outgoing or the loudest.
The assessors sat unobtrusively at the end of the table. Some even gave candidates advice on how to begin. ‘Think out loud,’ they suggested. ‘There’s no right answer, just discuss things with each other.’
What happened during the presentation exercise?
At the end of the case study the candidates were asked to present their conclusions. They were reassured that the main aim was to look at their communication skills rather than their findings; they weren’t expected to be construction geniuses. The assessors wanted to see if candidates could explain their ideas and feed their thoughts back to other members of a team.
Some groups chose a representative to speak on their behalf while other groups organised the presentation so that they each had something to say. Those who stood out spoke clearly and calmly, with a clear structure to their argument.
‘We look for personality,’ WSP’s recruitment manager explained. ‘The day is designed to show the interaction between candidates. We already know their technical skills and their academic qualifications from their CVs so it’s really more about their softer skills.’
What interview questions were asked at the graduate assessment centre?
After lunch it was time for the individual interviews. Each candidate was interviewed by two assessors. Candidates were asked to:
- describe their work experience
- provide examples of when they had led a team
- say how they had managed their time at university
- explain why they wanted to work for WSP
- give an example of a difficult situation that they had overcome
- explain what they enjoyed about their university course
- say what their strong points and weaknesses were
Candidates were also given the chance to ask questions at the end. The interviewers were relaxed and friendly and tried to prompt people when they got stuck. It was clear that they were trying to get the best out of them.
What happened towards the end of the day?
Following the interview, candidates completed a brief written exercise – in this case, just one question. They were then given the opportunity to ask recruiters any further questions over refreshments. The day came to a close at 4.30pm.
Is this a typical construction assessment centre?
Much of the day was typical of assessment centres in construction, engineering and surveying. Most events begin with employer presentations and introductions before candidates are split into smaller groups to work on tasks. The assessment centre described above lasted almost a full working day; however, there is an increasing trend towards shorter assessment centres, lasting two to three hours.
Common assessment centre exercises and tasks include activities such as:
- Written exercises – a common method of examining candidates' communication skills and ability to use correct spelling and grammar
- Group exercises – allow employers to assess candidates' 'soft skills' eg listening, teamwork and the ability to work with others. They are often based around a construction project (for example, selecting which materials, subcontractors or project designs to proceed with), but can be a more general 'ice breaking' discussion task.
- Aptitude or ability tests – used to assess specific skills such as numerical or verbal reasoning and are usually sat under exam conditions. These are often done earlier in the application process, but are sometimes repeated in the assessment centre to verify results.
- Technical exercises – for some roles within the construction industry, candidates are set a task that specifically tests their technical skills, eg a design exercise. Read our feature on tackling civil engineering technical exercises
- Presentations – may be feedback sessions like the case study follow-up at WSP assessment centre, or are prepared for by candidates in advance . Skills in effective communication are vital for construction and surveying roles and presentations are a useful way for candidates to show off these skills to employers
- Lunch and tea breaks – many employers note the value of candidates using free time during assessment centres such as lunch or coffee breaks to introduce themselves to employers and graduate employees. These occasions are an opportunity for candidates to show off their social skills and their interest in the business by asking questions and making conversation. This helps assessors work out whether candidates would be good with clients