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How to become a commercially aware candidate

Construction commercial awareness interview questions & tips

All construction graduates – from architects to civil engineers to quantity surveyors – are expected to be commercially savvy. Here's how to demonstrate your commercial thinking to interviewers.

Look at the innovative ideas and constraints impacting on the construction industry.

If you have been invited to an interview or an assessment centre 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. You might be asked interview questions related to commercial awareness topics; you might be given exercises that require you to factor in commercial considerations; or you might strike up conversations with assessors and recruiters that touch upon business topics.

However, many graduates don’t fully demonstrate their commercial thinking because they misunderstand what commercial awareness means in the context of the construction industry.

So, 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. Even as a graduate, you have a responsibility to ensure that a project is profitable for the employer and that the employer continues to have a good relationship with its clients and suppliers. You will need to help produce a high-quality, safe and sustainable project that meets the client’s brief within budget, while being aware of financial constraints and 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.

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

You could be asked very obviously commercially focused questions, some economic and political questions and some questions about how well you know the company – here are some examples of questions that previous candidates have been 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?
  • How will Brexit affect the construction industry?
  • Give us an example of a time when you achieved a challenging financial outcome and the actions you took to achieve it.
  • What challenges are facing the industry right now?
  • Who are our biggest competitors?
  • What can you bring to the company?

Alternatively, you could be given technical or scenario-based/hypothetical questions, for which it would be impressive if your answers included commercial factors alongside other considerations. For example:

  • (For site-based roles) What would you do if time on site was delayed by a burst water pipe?
  • Would you ever break the rules to get the job done?
  • (For design engineering roles after you have solved a design problem) How would you reduce the costs for this design?
  • A town is looking into building a bypass of a major road going through it. What factors would you have to consider?
  • What would you do if a client was unhappy with the design and wanted to change it?

How do you answer commercial awareness questions in construction interviews?

William Walsh, a commercial director at Barratt, put it best when he told a previous edition of the UK 300: ‘My biggest tip is to make sure you research us before the interview; a surprising number of graduates don’t know who our biggest competitors are. It’s impressive if you understand the business performance but also look at the innovative ideas and constraints impacting on the construction industry.’

What are some of these ideas and constraints? Well, here are some broad factors that we’ve identified; you’ll need to delve into the detail behind them yourself.

  • Brexit. Hint: if the Brexit topic comes up in conversation or at interview, it’s best to talk through the potential positive or negative implications for the employer and the industry neutrally, rather than express your personal political views.
  • Government investment and support for infrastructure, the housing market, hospitals and so on – plus other funding sources.
  • The environment and sustainability – not a new topic for the industry but, with a greater focus on actions around climate change and government commitments, expect a new focus and new regulations.
  • The impact of late payments on construction organisations: this is a perennial problem for the construction industry, with companies delaying paying suppliers and subcontractors, who in turn have to delay paying their own suppliers. Some commentators say that one of the issues related to this is the thinness of the profit margins companies operate on – which is why individual professionals’ actions matter so much.
  • The effects of off-site construction and use of technology on schedules, costs, profitability and so on.
  • The short- and long-term impacts of the coronavirus. These are as yet unknown but potential issues could include: a delay in project completion, strain on the supply chain, skills shortages and project pipelines being affected by a lack of confidence in the economy.

You can follow Will’s ‘do your research’ advice by:

  • reading, and following on social media, industry news sites and publications, such as Building and Construction News – your university library or department should have subscriptions for behind-paywall news sources
  • keeping up with developments reported on by and affecting relevant professional bodies – student membership is usually free for those on accredited courses
  • keeping an eye on global economic and political news – good sources for this include The Economist and the Financial Times as well as the business sections of broadsheet news organisations and, again, your university library or the public library should have subscriptions
  • following the news, annual reports and social media accounts of the employers you are interested in and those of their direct competitors.

But rest assured that interviewers aren’t 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? Instead of trying to guess, either admit that the topic 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?

If you are set a case study or a problem to solve as part of a group task, always make sure that the commercial aspects are discussed. If, for example, you are asked to decide which site to develop out of a choice of three (a common case study task), you shouldn’t necessarily go for the most cost effective option – but budgets, costs and potential future value should feature in your decision-making process.

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 of an interview, 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 Y in the future?’

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