Succeed at civil and structural engineering assessment centres
Apply for a graduate job with a large engineering employer and you'll probably attend an assessment centre during the interview process. What to expect and how to prepare: we explain all.
Say something early on when tackling group exercises, such as "How do we approach this?"
What is an assessment centre? It’s a stage in the recruitment process where HR professionals and managers within the business bring together a number of candidates and set them a range of group and individual tasks to check whether they are right for the company and the job. Typical assessment centre exercises for civil engineering jobs include:
- a group exercise
- a case study or scenario to be worked through either in a group or individually
- a presentation
- an interview with a manager or director.
The larger civil engineering employers typically hold their assessment centres anywhere between February and May each year. As of October 2020, we are not yet sure whether they will be able to run socially distanced in-person assessment days, whether they will switch to running virtual assessment centres or whether they will choose an alternative method of assessment, such as a video interview.
Before the coronavirus, we spoke to Tina Gunnarsson, a temporary works engineer at Balfour Beatty, who graduated with an MEng in civil engineering from Imperial College London. While searching for a graduate job, she attended two assessment centres with construction employers. Although her experiences predate Covid-19, all of her advice applies equally well to virtual assessment centres as they do in-person events.
Civil engineering assessors and candidates
The assessors on the days Tina attended were a mixture of HR professionals, engineers and managers from different parts of the business. Some were very senior and some more junior.
Some construction employers hold an assessment day for all the roles they are offering, whereas others run a specific assessment centre for their civil engineering vacancies, another for their quantity surveying vacancies and so on. In both of Tina’s assessment days, there were 10–15 candidates. At a virtual assessment centre, there may well be fewer candidates.
The setting for construction assessment centres
Civil engineering and construction assessment centres are typically held at an employer’s head office or at a conference centre: ‘For both of my assessment centres, we started off in a large conference room, and did our first group activity there,’ says Tina. ‘Then the assessors headed off into smaller rooms for individual exercises and the interviews. We all reassembled into the large room for any technical exercises and final activities at the end of the day.’ If attending a virtual assessment centre, it is likely that you will head off to smaller, virtual 'rooms' for specific activities.
How to prepare for an assessment centre: Tina’s tips for civil engineers
When Tina was invited to her assessment days, she received an email giving the times and dates. There were also brief sentences about what tasks to expect, but no specific details about what they involved.
So, Tina knew she’d better be prepared for anything: ‘I did some research on the company, the projects and the company’s values,’ she says. ‘I also looked over my CV and practised talking about my placements, making sure there was nothing on my CV that I couldn’t talk about. I used TARGETjobs to identify “standard” interview questions for me to practise.’
Tina went a step further, too: ‘I attended a workshop at my university careers service. It went through what to prepare and explained the different components of the day. It also included a “mock” group exercise so we could practise our techniques.’
In retrospect, is there anything else she would do? ‘I would have spoken to friends of mine who had graduated the previous year and had gone through assessment centres. I think they would have had lots of tips – I just didn’t think of it at the time!’
Civil engineering assessment centre exercises explained: the group exercise
There are various types of group exercises, including:
- an icebreaker exercise – these are often light-hearted
- a general discussion about a construction or engineering topic, such as the reasons behind shortage occupations or how the sustainability of existing structures could be improved
- a scenario or case study in which groups work on a technical or construction-related problem or topic and come up with solutions or recommendations; these could range from being a safety or environmental initiative to deciding which projects to tender (or bid) for.
‘Working through group exercises can feel a bit strange or artificial,’ Tina says, ‘but remember that assessors are interested in how you get on and work with other people, so try to put that to one side and get involved.’
In case study exercises, assessors are also evaluating your problem-solving skills and ability to make decisions under time pressures. Tina’s tip is to be proactive right from the start: ‘Make sure you say something early on, such as: “How will we approach this?”. This usually ensures that you are automatically included in discussions from then on – and shows the assessors that you are proactive.’
Civil engineering assessment centre exercises explained: the presentation
If you are given a case study exercise, it is likely that you will be asked to present your recommendations or solutions. If so, you’ll be given time to prepare the presentation on the day. The assessors are likely to play the role of clients and will ask you questions similar to those that clients would ask: for example, about cost or sustainability. However, Tina stresses that you aren’t tested on your technical knowledge in these presentations, but on how you communicate your ideas and persuade and enthuse others.
Alternatively, some civil engineering employers will ask you to prepare a presentation in advance on a given topic, such as a construction project that inspires you or a hobby that you’re passionate about.
‘On one of my assessment days, I think I performed my best at the presentation stage,’ Tina says. ‘We were each given a flipbook of paper to help us prepare our presentations. While other candidates just presented a list of bullet points, I also drew pictures and diagrams. I think the assessors liked that I was thinking of different ways to communicate my ideas to the audience.’
Civil engineering assessment centre exercises explained: the one-to-one interview
‘The interviews I had were more in-depth than the phone and video interviews I’d completed earlier in the recruitment process,’ Tina remembers. ‘However, the questions were mainly competency questions, asking me for examples of when I’d demonstrated skills such as teamwork and leadership.’
As Tina had technical exercises to complete, she wasn't quizzed about her technical knowledge during the interview. However, if you are not asked to do a technical exercise as part of a group exercise, you might be asked some questions in an interview or asked to look at some technical drawings before your interview and talk through your conclusions.
Tina’s takeaway assessment day tip: smile and be enthusiastic
‘Looking back, I was so nervous before both of the assessment days,’ says Tina, ‘but actually there was no need to be nervous: everyone was really friendly and all of us candidates were in the same situation. Knowing I was prepared did help me a bit with the nerves. I did my best to smile lots, be enthusiastic and not take a back seat, and I recommend you do the same!’