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How to be a commercially aware construction professional

Construction commercial awareness interview questions & tips

All construction graduates – from architects to civil engineers to quantity surveyors – will be expected to be commercially savvy. Here's how to demonstrate your commercial thinking to interviewers.
If you talk about Brexit, discuss potential positives and negatives on the construction industry neutrally; if you can’t do this, avoid the subject.

If you have been invited to an interview for a construction graduate job – for example, as a quantity surveyor, civil engineer, structural engineer, building services engineer or site manager – you will be expected to demonstrate that you can think commercially. In our experience, though, many graduates don’t fully do this because they misunderstand what commercial awareness means in the context of the construction industry.

With the help of Ian Tyrls, national commercial manager at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business, we have put together a guide to help you tackle the commercial awareness aspects of construction interviews and assessment centres. In this article you’ll find:

Why is commercial awareness important for graduate quantity surveyors, civil engineers and construction managers?

All construction professionals need to be aware of how their actions can contribute to the financial success of a project and their employer. ‘Graduates need to understand that an important function of a construction professional is not just to design or construct a building, but to ensure a profitable outcome for the business they work for and add value to what they do for the client,’ says Ian. This means that construction professionals need to produce a high-quality, safe and sustainable project that meets the client’s brief within budget; they also need to understand the commercial parameters that their business is operating under, such as how the cost of materials, for example, affect profit margins.

What is commercial awareness in construction?

Within the construction industry, a commercially aware graduate will be able to answer the following questions:

  • How will changes in external factors – such as government policy, the state of the economy, changing legislative requirements and building regulations and new technological developments – affect a company’s business strategy and profitability?
  • How does their particular job function contribute to their employer’s profitability? Ie how does their role make money for the company and how would their actions make or lose money for the company?

All construction interview candidates should be able to understand the commercial aspects that directly affect the overall commercial position of the company and their day-to-day job role. For example:

  • If an employer announces that it will scale-up its UK housebuilding operations and close down its European-focused divisions, a commercially aware would-be site engineer will understand that this could be due to continued strong demand for houses within the UK and uncertainty about operating in Europe post-Brexit.
  • The would-be site engineer must also understand that a water pipe bursting on site may delay work on their package, which will cost the business money as they may need to pay for overtime, for example.

When interviewing candidates, Ian wants to see that they are as comfortable in talking knowledgeably about commercial issues in general as they are about their specialist job role and skills.

What commercial awareness questions might you be asked in a construction interview?

Commercial awareness questions can come in many shapes and sizes. Some might be very specific and obviously commercially focused, while others might be more general, allowing you to bring in commercial factors alongside other considerations.

Some example questions that previous construction candidates were asked:

  • How would you analyse a cost/time for a project? Explain the techniques you would use and the things you would look for.
  • What measures would you take to ensure the company continues to be successful against this evolving economic and political backdrop?
  • Give us an example of a time when you achieved a challenging financial outcome and the actions you took to achieve it.

You can also work commercial awareness into general questions like ‘tell me about yourself’, where you can talk about commercially savvy decisions you’ve made in your life.

How do you answer commercial awareness questions in construction interviews?

As Ian has underlined, the recruiters are looking for evidence that you can comfortably talk about the company’s position in the wider industry and economy. He advises that a candidate should go into an interview with their mind focused on the fact that they want to work for a business and that an important driver of business is profitability.

What preparation should you do?

You should first make sure that you are up to date on world news; the construction industry can be affected by all sorts of factors from political policies to cultural trends.

You should also make sure that you are well versed in industry news so reading industry specialist websites and magazines is recommended.

Make sure you also have an understanding of the company’s position within the industry: what are its values? What are its aims for the near future?

Finally, you need to know the construction process inside-out and how your role fits into it.

Depth of knowledge

Recruiters are looking for an awareness of the wider world and the capacity to apply your knowledge to your work, decision-making processes and the company. However, they are not looking for encyclopaedic knowledge; trying to remember specific statistics is not necessary – just make sure you are clued up on the overall picture of the company and the industry and have an opinion.

What if you can’t answer the question?

Do not bluff an answer. Ian points out: ‘It becomes quickly apparent when a candidate is trying to bluff commercial awareness answers and it always reflects worse than not knowing the answer’.

If you do find yourself in the position where you don't know the answer, you should either admit that this has not been the focus of your news reading recently and then try to pick apart the question logically. Or, if it seems appropriate, you should steer the conversation towards an area you are more confident in.

How is commercial awareness judged in an assessment centre?

Commercial awareness is often measured in the group project of an assessment centre. Ian says that a candidate should not only focus on leading the task and getting to a solution but also on making sure that the solution is cost effective and adds value. Whenever an option is presented in the project, you should not only consider health and safety, durability, aesthetics and the like but also budget, cost, potential future value and more.

Asking your own commercial awareness questions at interviews or assessment centres

When you are asked if you have any questions for the employer at the end , you could ask a question that demonstrates your commercial awareness. For example: ‘have you found that X has affected the company?’ or ‘do you anticipate X having an effect on the cost of Y in the future?’

Should you bring up Brexit?

When discussing current affairs and the economy, Brexit is hard to ignore, but is it risky to bring it up? If it comes up in conversation or is the most obvious answer to a question, you can do so, but Ian suggests: ‘Avoid indicating a personal view of remain or leave and remove any emotion. If the candidate can refer to Brexit and be impartial in its impact on an area, that is ok. The candidate should be able to discuss potential positives and negatives of Brexit on the construction industry neutrally; if they can’t do this, candidates should avoid the subject.’