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No internship in construction, QS or engineering? What to do instead

Your chances of getting a graduate job with a construction, engineering or surveying employer aren’t necessarily over if you don’t get an industry internship or placement.

On your CV, detail the site visits, industry talks and mock-projects you undertook on your course.

Although the amount of work experience you have in construction, engineering or surveying is a factor for recruiters when reviewing your graduate job application, it is not the be-all and end-all. Recruiters will be looking for evidence that you have the skills, values and behaviours to succeed in construction and that you have a passion for the job. But this evidence doesn’t have to come from a formal placement. Below we outline some actions you can take to gather evidence and enhance your CV.

1. Apply speculatively for work experience

There’s nothing to stop you from contacting smaller or local construction employers who do not run formal internship schemes to see if they could offer you a short period of work experience or the opportunity to work-shadow (or observe) a professional at work. Applying on the ‘off chance’ in this way is called applying speculatively. You’ll need to do this several weeks in advance of when you would like to start the work experience and you’ll need to follow up on your initial application with a phone call to make sure that someone gets back to you.

How to apply speculatively for work experience (and find employers who’ll offer it to you).

Interior architecture student Tori Shepherd actually got both of her placements informally: once when buying a dog (the seller just happened to be the director of an architecture practice and, after talking to her about her degree, offered her work experience) and once through chatting to a family friend (who happened to work at Kier and passed her the contact details of the head of design management at Kier). In both cases, Tori had to send an email to follow up.

2. Think about construction-related voluntary work – not an option for everyone

You might be able to join construction- and environment-related voluntary projects (usually abroad). Most projects last upwards of five months, but some are available for one month or three months. While these could add to your CV, be aware that many organisations charge a fee for arranging the placement and that you’ll probably have to pay for your own travel. This isn’t an option for everyone.

Find out more about international gap year projects in TARGETjobs’ advice feature on gap years and taking time out.

What about taking up an unpaid internship? It is one way to get experience on your CV, but there are legal (and, some would argue, moral) questions surrounding it. It’s likely that you are legally entitled to the national minimum wage if: you are not required to complete the work experience as part of your course; you have a contract or other arrangement to do work for a benefit in kind, eg the promise of future work; and/or you have to turn up for work even if you don’t want to. See our feature on the law on unpaid internships and for more information.

3. Make the most of the industry speakers and site visits organised by your university

Most university courses and built environment student societies arrange opportunities for students to:

  • gain hands-on practical experience
  • meet employers and industry professionals
  • visit sites
  • take part in mock-projects.

Some faculties run a formal mentoring programme in which students are paired up with industry professionals – if yours doesn’t, seek out a contact on your careers service alumni database (a list of graduates who’d be happy to talk to, advise or mentor current students).

Your CV will look more impressive if you include details about your site visits, industry talks and mock-projects (write about what you’ve learned from them). You can also use these opportunities to start to build a network (see below for tips on how to do this).

4. Create a network

Try to build up relationships with industry professionals. When at talks and events, ask the speakers follow-up questions and contact them (via email or social media) to say how much you got out of their talk and ask them for careers advice. Even if you don’t get a job offer out of it, you are likely to find their tips valuable.

Be active on LinkedIn, keeping your profile updated and joining in discussions. Look for other networking opportunities, too: could you join the student groups or any other panels of professional bodies, for example? Networking can lead to you being offered advice or you being given leads for jobs and internships. Ashley Dunsmore, a quantity surveyor at Kier, networked actively on LinkedIn and received internship offers, invitations to RICS conferences and a job offer because of it.

‘On LinkedIn. I searched for “surveyors”, “commercial directors”, “construction in Dundee and Glasgow” and for anyone connected with RICS. Then I would message them to ask for their advice and whether they knew of anybody offering work experience,’ she explains. ‘I contacted a lot of people and I wondered if I came across as a pest, but no one minded. Everyone was very helpful and, if they couldn’t assist me, they put me in touch with someone who could. The most valuable piece of advice I received was to keep networking.’

Additionally, if you write about your involvement with professional bodies on your CV, it will prove your interest in the sector.

Networking advice for construction, surveying and engineering students.

5. Consider taking up agency construction work

Recruiters at construction contractors tell us that they like to see ‘non-graduate’ work on graduates’ CVs (eg temping as a labourer) because it provides on-site experience and an insight into how best to manage teams of workers. You can often get this work by going through recruitment agencies (although these days recruitment agencies are increasingly likely to ask for qualifications/a CSCS card before you start on site and so opportunities might be less plentiful than they were). Building surveyors might get more out of temping at an estate agency.

6. Enter construction, surveying and engineering industry competitions

The TARGETjobs Construction & Engineering Undergraduate of the Year Award gives you the chance to win an internship with a top employer.

Professional bodies, such as RICS and ICE, often run competitions and bursaries open to students and graduates; these are often essay-based. Stating that you’ve entered such competitions or applied for bursaries – even if you weren’t successful – enhances your CV. If you are successful and receive invitations to industry conferences or competition winners’ ceremonies, it’s a good way to network.

7. Squeeze skills from your general work experience to add to your graduate CV

Construction recruiters all agree that work experience – whatever its form, and whatever the sector – makes candidates employable. Your part-time student work or post-graduation temp jobs give you a whole range of skills that are sought after by construction employers.

When TARGETjobs asked a recruiter from Skanska to tell us about an answer that really impressed her in an interview, she told us one that had nothing to do with a construction placement: 'I once asked a candidate about a difficult business decision they’d made and was very impressed to hear that they worked as a manager in a fast food chain and had to decide whether to send staff home,' she said. 'It wasn’t so much the task that was really impressive but their explanation of how they came to that decision and the way they managed the risk. It gave me a great impression of them.’

8. Sell your achievements from your extracurricular activities

Any activity you have taken part in at university or a gap year can be used as evidence of your skills. If you are still a student – even if the demands of your course are high – try to take the opportunity to get actively involved in a student society (perhaps joining the committee or helping to organise an event) and write it up on your CV. ‘Reflect on your experiences and consider what skills you got out of them,’ says Sarah Leggett, a section engineer at Laing O’Rourke. ‘I started a netball team with the other girls studying engineering as a way to get to know each other. This showed teamwork, proactivity and the ability to order things outside of the classroom.’

Sabina Tayub, a graduate civil engineer at Balfour Beatty, agrees: ‘My extracurricular activities did help me with my job search; they brought out in me skills that I was lacking. I am naturally very shy, but that changed when I became a student and faculty representative,’ she says ‘I stood for elections and soon I was discussing issues with the dean and the registrar. I also became a STEM ambassador and I went into schools to promote civil engineering careers. All of this developed the confidence to fit in anywhere and talk to anyone.’

If you’ve already graduated, it’s not too late to add some extracurricular activities to your CV. If you have time amidst the job searching, see if you can volunteer with a local community group or pass on your maths knowledge to school children; there are recruitment agencies who specialise in offering tutorial services. If all else fails, raise money for charity – anything that helps you gain evidence of using your skills.

Final words of wisdom

Don’t overlook your achievements outside of the construction industry; they could get you your job. ‘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,’ says Kate Poade, graduate recruitment adviser at Atkins. All of this is relevant.

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