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A building services engineer explaining his day job

Building services engineering graduate jobs: how to get one

Stuart Hill, a principal engineer at Mott MacDonald with 12 years’ experience, explains what a building services engineer does – and shares what he seeks in graduate recruits.
An interview question I often ask is ‘what is your favourite building and why?’.

Building services engineers develop the systems that bring buildings and structures to life – to ensure that they are more than a shell. The job covers a wide variety of technical aspects, including power supply, ventilation, heating and cooling, water and drainage systems, lighting, and communications. Put simply, a building services engineer will be involved with all kinds of systems that make a building function, with an emphasis on the mechanical and electrical aspects. Because of this, building services engineers can have a huge influence on a building’s sustainability strategy and rating.

Why should engineering students consider a building services career?

Many engineering students don’t realise that construction is one of the industries open to them upon graduating. I have an MEng in electrical and electronics engineering and I joined the industry after completing a summer placement on a pharmaceuticals research building. Before that, I had considered going into telecoms, but I absolutely loved the variety of the construction industry.

In construction, you work with a wide variety of different professionals and stakeholders, each with different perspectives. An ecologist will have a different take on a situation to an engineer for example; a construction project is a balance of all of these different factors. Building services engineers address complex and often multifaceted technical problems, which can be satisfying and frustrating in equal measure. It is also always a challenge finding the right balance between best quality and best value, according to a client’s brief. However, you can gain a great deal of satisfaction from creating a tangible outcome that has a significant influence on the world.

So, what degree backgrounds are accepted for building services engineering roles?

A degree in building services engineering or architectural engineering provides an obvious route into the career; however, degrees in electrical (or electrical and electronic) engineering and mechanical engineering are also accepted. There are jobs available for those with BEngs, but an MEng or an MSc will be advantageous, as most employers will want to hire graduates they can put through chartership more quickly.

Which employers hire graduate building services engineers – and what does the job involve day to day?

Generally graduate employers fall into three categories and your role will vary accordingly:

Design – typically design consulting firms

Designers take a client’s brief and convert this into a set of design information (drawings, specifications etc) that can then be constructed. Designers are mostly office-based with fairly standard office hours; they may work on a number of different projects simultaneously.

Design roles are, unsurprisingly, best suited to those who have enjoyed the design aspects of their degree and to those who like solving technical problems.

Construction – construction companies (or contractors)

They take the design information and manage the building phase. Graduates typically use their comprehensive understanding of design information to make sure that the building is constructed properly and supervise the workforce building the structure. They are based on site.

Graduates on the construction side require a strong technical understanding, but will also use a practical, management mindset to ensure that designs are implemented. They tend not to work standard office hours: depending on the needs of the project, they may start earlier or work shifts. They are based on site and typically work on one project at a time.

It’s worth noting that some construction companies also complete the design work instead of a design consulting firm, thereby providing a design-and-build service to clients, and so they may offer some design jobs as well.

Operation – typically facilities and building management companies

Employers could also be individual organisations that own and maintain buildings or estates: examples include Network Rail, the NHS, and manufacturing and blue-chip companies.

Graduates working in this area ensure the ongoing operation of the building. They might look to optimise the building stock to get the most out of it in terms of energy efficiency, for example; they might upgrade processes, investigating how to harness newer technologies and solutions; or they might oversee maintenance work.

Those who work in operations will require a similar aptitude for management as those on the construction side, making the most out of the available resources. Depending on the company they join, they will be based in an office, usually on the site(s) they manage or within a commutable distance.

What key skills do all good building services engineers need?

You need to have analytical and problem-solving abilities, along with good communication and teamwork skills. Client, best practice and legal requirements change frequently, so you need to be adaptable. The best building services engineers have a passion to make things better (eg to be more sustainable, use less energy, improve efficiency, work smarter or be more cost effective).

What career progression does a building services engineer have?

It will depend on the employer, but most graduates start getting down to real work pretty quickly. In a consultancy, you might start carrying out a design under the supervision of a senior engineer or completing a survey out on a site. At a contractor, you might assist an engineer supervising a package (part of the project). In an operations role, you could start out familiarising yourself with a building’s requirements.

Gaining chartership

On-the-job training will be supplemented by training courses and a continual process of mentoring. A mentor is quite an important person in your early career development, as they will help you to set your professional goals, such as achieving chartered (CEng) or incorporated (IEng) status with an appropriate professional body. The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) all support qualifications in building services – which you join is a personal choice.

Progression from graduate engineer to senior or principal engineer is based on your personal development and experience, and you would typically be expected to have achieved CEng (or similar status) by the time you reach the level of senior engineer.

Attaining senior and principal engineering roles and upwards

Senior and principal engineers have more responsibility for projects and teams. They lead technical aspects of projects and may have some role in supporting the wider business. The role is varied. For example, my day yesterday was technically focused, working with the design team to arrive at a solution. A client had come back with comments and we had to review how a system worked; I was reviewing calculations and answering questions from the team. The day before this, I was out on site, briefing people on a project that we had designed. Over time, you may find yourself specialising in a particular type of project: I work a lot on rail, for example.

From principal engineer, the next step is usually into a more senior management position within the business. This usually depends on the individual’s choices and goals, which may be more focused on running the business (eg divisional directors or business managers) or more on managing a portfolio of projects and teams (eg directing a range of projects and taking a more client-facing role).

How can graduates find building services jobs?

Large consultancies and contractors offer formal graduate programmes and usually advertise them on jobs websites such as TARGETjobs, as well as on their own graduate recruitment websites.

There are more vacancies on the design and construction side than operations. Operations companies tend to advertise individual vacancies rather than graduate programmes – but it does depend on the employer.

The job titles for graduate vacancies will vary a little according to the employer, but search for ‘graduate engineer’, ‘graduate buildings services engineer’, ‘graduate electrical engineer’, ‘graduate mechanical engineer’, or ‘graduate public health engineer’.

What about work experience?

I would encourage anyone considering building services to seek out some work experience. Summer placements are frequently advertised by larger firms, as are industrial placement years. They are a great way to learn about the industry.

How important are internships or placements to getting a graduate job in building services?

Work experience related to building services does jump out on a CV, as does any infrastructure- or utilities-related work experience. If you have perhaps worked for a manufacturer of building materials, that would also show an understanding of the industry. But any work experience is good!

How can graduates impress you during the recruitment process?

I look for candidates who can explain why they are interested in construction and building services. I recently interviewed a candidate who told me ‘building services engineers bring buildings to life’. The rest of the interview went well, and she was hired the next day.

An interview question I often ask is ‘what is your favourite building and why?’. The interviewee could talk about any building – from The Shard to a water treatment company to their local school – as long as they can explain their reasoning. If their reasons focus on the electrical or mechanical systems and how the building works, so much the better.

I also look for a passion for sustainability and the desire to use a future 40-year career to make a positive difference. I gauge this by their ability to discuss sustainable issues. A prime answer to an interview question would be along the lines of ‘I’ve read X about sustainability and this is how it interested me…’.

When we ask technical interview questions, we are interested in how candidates approach problems. We wouldn’t expect them to know the software we use; we teach them that. We just want to know that their problem solving is sound and that they can apply basic principles.

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