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Turning work experience into a job: working in design management at Kier Group

Tori turned a chance meeting with an old friend into the offer of a six-week placement, which led her to a career that she loves.
I got both my work experience places through talking to people.

When I was choosing my degree, I liked the idea of interior design but wanted something more architectural and technical. I've always had a passion for redesigning existing buildings. I love a building that has a history – whether it is a medieval structure or a warehouse that has its roots in the industrial revolution. I didn't necessarily plan to work in construction; it was my work experience that showed me design management, rather than architecture, was for me.

Getting work experience

I got both my work experience places through talking to people. My first placement was with Ross Thain & Co. Ltd, a small architectural practice. It just so happened that I went to buy a dog from Ross and I got chatting to him about my course. He said that I should email him if I wanted any work experience. I did and he offered me two weeks. I learned a lot from the professionals working there and I visited as many sites as possible, my favourite being a refurbishment of a stately home and many of its estate buildings.

After this, I wanted to gain experience on the commercial side at a larger company. I bumped into a family friend who told me that she worked for Kier and kindly gave me the contact details for the head of design. I emailed him and we had a phone conversation to work out whether the placement was suitable. I was then offered a week's work experience in June, which turned into two weeks. He then asked if I'd like to stay until his new graduates arrived in September.

Getting a graduate job

When I left, my manager offered me a job, on the basis that I got at least a 2.1. It felt great to go back to university knowing that I potentially had a well-paid job when I graduated. I really loved my time at Kier and I had got on well with everyone. I also thought that there would be more opportunities for career development at a larger company than at a smaller architectural practice – and the pay would be better!

So, unusually, I didn't go through a traditional graduate recruitment process to get a job. I think that, from my work experience, my manager could see I was capable. I'd also say that I am quite confident and a good communicator; it doesn't worry me to be put in new situations and have conversations with people. My manager has since said that a huge percentage of what he looks for in candidates is interpersonal skills because our job is client facing and it does involve communicating effectively with a range of stakeholders.

The job of a design manager

Design managers coordinate all the design aspects of a project across the entire construction process on behalf of the construction company building it. Our role is most obvious during the pre-construction phases; for example, a design manager will work alongside estimators and planners when tendering (bidding for a project) to highlight risks and opportunities. We coordinate the design team and select the external professionals, such as architects and engineers, who will be working with us. We ensure that the designs are compliant with standards and legislation. Sometimes we have to challenge a design and suggest alternatives. A lot of the role involves managing people's expectations and helping the team to find a solution.

One of the best things about my job is the variety of projects. My current project is an RAF base, which encompasses work on the administrative facilities, hanger refurbishments, oil tank replacements and so on. I've also been involved in the tendering process for work on some University of Cambridge colleges and I spent three months on site during the construction phase of a sports centre project, too.

When I started I was aware that most other graduates had completed a construction or design management course at university, while my degree focused mostly on the spatial design of existing buildings. I felt that I had a lot to learn, but my manager ensured that I was familiar with basic processes. There is also a huge amount of support and training on the graduate programme and beyond. I'm completing a qualification with the Institute of Leadership and Management, as well as working towards chartership with the Chartered Institute of Building.

Graduate of the year

My biggest achievement so far has been being selected as Kier's 2018 'graduate of the year'. Being involved in Challenge 2020, a corporate social responsibility initiative, played a massive part in my winning. The 2020 challenge involved volunteers travelling through every Kier Construction site across the country using no motorised forms of transport to raise money for charity. I was seconded for three months to organise the eastern region's contribution. Our target was to raise £25,000 and we made £46,000. Ways in which we raised money and awareness around the region included site BBQs, football tournaments and even putting the project managers on our school sites in 'stocks' and encouraging the school children to throw sponges at them!

I developed a lot of transferable skills through the project, such as planning and organising, communication, and health and safety awareness. I built a lot of good relationships with colleagues around the country; now, if I have a question or want to ask them advice, I can just ring them up. I was so grateful that Kier allowed me time out from my role to do something so worthwhile for the community.

Tori Shepherd
Job title: 
Assistant design manager

2012–2016 Worked at a pub as a duty manager for a year before university and then part time during the holidays.
2013–2016 Studied for, and graduated with, a BA in interior architecture at the University of Brighton.
2014 Completed two weeks of work experience during the summer as an architectural assistant at Ross Thain & Co. Ltd.
2015 Completed a summer placement in design management at Kier.
2016 Joined Kier as a graduate design manager.
2019 Was promoted to assistant design manager.

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