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Consultancies vs contractors: this is some careers advice to pay attention to

Applications tip for quantity surveyors: know how consultancies and contractors differ

Not knowing whether you are applying to a contractor or a consultant can seriously harm your quantity surveying job prospects. We explain what you need to know for graduate applications and interviews.
Show your understanding of the differences between consulting and contracting in applications and interviews.

Quantity surveying recruiters tell us that many graduate applicants don’t appear to know whether they’re applying to a consultant or a contractor. This is concerning, considering the job of a quantity surveyor is different depending on whether you work for a consultant (go into private practice), a contractor or a housebuilder. In fact, you should use your knowledge of the differences as part of your answers to common application and interview questions, such as:

  • What do you know about us? (Whether they are a consultant or contractor should be the basic starting point for your answer.)
  • Why are you applying to us? Why do you want to work for us? (Part of your answer could be because you want to work in consultancy or contracting.)
  • What will you be doing as a quantity surveyor? What does a quantity surveying career involve? (Show that you understand how the job differs depending on the type of organisation you work for.)
  • Why do you think you would make a good employee? (Part of your answer could be that you are particularly well suited to, eg consultancy work, because...)

Before we start: how a construction project gets built

The typical project cycle – the process of getting a project built or completed – is:

  • A client decides there is a need for a project – something should be built, renovated or developed. The client decides what they want to build, when they need it to be finished and how much they are prepared to pay.
  • The client employs consultancies quite early in the project to advise them on design and cost matters. Sometimes they employ a number of specialist consultancies but sometimes one consultancy will provide a range of services. Quantity surveying consultancies are often called private practices.
  • Once sufficient design information is available, the client’s consultant team issues tenders to contractors, who then submit a price or bid for building the project. The contractor who wins the project carries out the construction work in accordance with the design, to the required quality, in the time allowed and for the agreed price.
  • Sometimes the contractor contracts out some work requiring specialist skills or expertise to subcontractors, eg reinforced concrete works, structural steelwork, foundation piling, roofing, cladding, plumbing and electrical work.

However, it’s now increasingly common for contractors to offer an all-in-one design-and-build service, thereby taking on some of the early design and cost management work traditionally completed by consultants.

With thanks to Hugh Price, professional development manager at Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, for his help with this explanation.

The job of graduate quantity surveyors at consultancies

Consultants (private practices) are usually employed by a client for their expertise, including cost management. Quantity surveyors working for a private practice consultancy are known in the industry as private quantity surveyors (PQS) and their role could be classed under a number of different job titles: cost consultant or cost manager, for example.

A PQS gets involved at an early stage of the project and is consulted on costs at every stage, from initial design through to the completion. Their duties involve being responsible for the validation and monitoring of costs. Initial tasks for a PQS involve advising on procurement, producing initial cost plans and hiring contractors. Once the project is up and running, the PQS will liaise with the contractor’s QS to verify and authorise monthly payments and to approve any changes to the original price. They tend to be largely office based, typically getting out on site about once a week.

A PQS would typically start as an assistant cost manager, progress to senior cost manager (after gaining chartership) and then work their way up to associate director and director.

The job of graduate quantity surveyors working at contractors

The duties of a contractor’s QS involve ensuring that the project stays within the given budget and to maximise profit for their employer.

The precise focus of their role will depend on whether they are working for the contractor’s bid/pre-construction team or the construction team – or both. Working for the pre-construction team, the quantity surveyor may be inputting into whether your organisation should bid for a project. Working for the construction team, a CQS gets an overview of the construction process and hands-on technical experience. Among other things, they are involved in preparing and reviewing subcontract tenders (finding the most suitable subcontractors for particular sections of work), managing the subcontractor’s work throughout, reporting on the financial progress of the project, generating valuations for the work done to date, and overseeing the payment of the subcontractors. They are often based on site and are very much at the centre of the project, watching it progress from day to day.

If, however, they work for a contractor that provides a design-and-build service they would get involved at the design stage of the project.

Graduates working at contractors tend to start as an assistant QS, progress to senior QS, and then work their way up to commercial manager.

The job of a quantity surveyor at a housebuilder

It’s worth looking carefully at the job descriptions for the vacancies because the remit of quantity surveyors at housebuilders can vary. Generally speaking, they mirror those of the contractor quantity surveyors – but may oversee the entire process of the development from the acquisition of the plot to completion. They may also input into the decision to acquire the plot in the first place.

Want to know how a graduate went from being on his graduate programme to commercial director in ten years? Read this exclusive interview from the UK 300.

How to decide whether a consulting or contracting cost management career is best for you

There is less of a divide than there once was between the work of a PQS and that of a contracting quantity surveyor, but there are still significant differences. It is also difficult to switch disciplines once you get established in your career (although not entirely impossible); many experienced hire vacancies require experience of working for a ‘main contractor’ or a consultancy, for example. So you do need to think carefully about whether working on the contractor or consultancy side would suit you.

Start with some self-evaluation: if you are more suited to being out and about on site than in an office all day, contracting is probably for you. Quantity surveyors at consultancies tend to put in more regular (typically office) hours while those on site will tend to work longer site-based hours. If you work on site, you may have a longer commute, but you will also have a front-row seat from which to watch the project being built.

If you can, get work experience with both a contractor and a consultant, even if it’s just a day’s work-shadowing. This is the best way to ‘try before you buy’ and you will be able to discuss the differences in job applications and interviews.

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