Graduate construction assessment centres: what to expect
A day of interviews, group work, presentations and aptitude tests is a nerve-wracking prospect for most graduates. However, you can take back control of the situation by viewing it as a chance to show employers how good you are.
Knowing what to expect is the key to performing well. When targetjobs.co.uk was invited to attend construction employer WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff's assessment centre, we jumped at the chance to see how they put graduates' skills to the test.
The assessment day introductions
The day 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.
The construction case study
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.’
The case study feedback: the presentation
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 back their thoughts 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,’ Lisa Tyler, the recruitment manager and facilitator, explains. ‘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.’
The graduate assessment centre interview
After lunch it was time for the individual interviews. Each candidate was interviewed by two assessors for around 40 minutes. Candidates were asked to:
- describe their work experience
- provide examples of when they had led a team
- say how they managed their time at university
- explain why they wanted to work for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff
- 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.
The finishing touch
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 employers presentations and introductions before candidates split into smaller groups. Common assessment centre day tests are 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 tests – used to assess specific skills such as numerical or verbal reasoning and are usually sat under exam conditions. Candidates' results are then compared to those of a group chosen by the employer
- Technical exercises – for some roles within the construction industry, candidates are set a task that specifically tests their technical skills, eg a design exercise
- Presentations – may be feedback sessions like the case study follow-up at WSP Global's 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 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