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How the industry became hip again


After decades of being derided as the basket case career choice, construction is now a sexy option.As industry gears up for National Construction Week, Emma Crates talks to industry insiders to find out why

IF YOU had suggested in the 1990s that construction could be the next IT, people would have laughed so hard they'd have dropped their laptops. But the sector, once written off as a second rate career choice, has snatched back its kudos.

From the moment the English and French tunnelling teams met under the Channel to the raising of the arch at Wembley, a series of breathtaking engineering and architectural achievements have caught the imagination of a new generation.

The crowd-pleasing Eden Project in Cornwall attracted 500,000 sightseers before it had even opened in 2001.And at this September's Open House Weekend in London, visitors queued for more than three hours just to get a sniff of the inside of Norman Foster's 'Erotic Gherkin'.

When a BBC poll voted Isambard Kingdom Brunel the second greatest Briton, just behind Winston Churchill, in 2002, it was clear engineering had become sexy again.

'Only a few years ago we were having a difficult job trying to persuade the channels that engineering could be interesting on television, ' says Mark Whitby, managing director of engineering consultant Whitby Bird.

Now it's almost a business in its own right.There's a good possibility that there will be a dedicated engineering channel in a few years.There's certainly enough material out there.'

There are also changes at grass roots level: applications to university building courses were up 16 per cent in 2004 and applications to civil engineering and architecture degrees rocketed by 25 per cent and 17.5 per cent respectively.

The trades are also seeing a renaissance. CITB-ConstructionSkills placed 9,106 young people in modern apprenticeship courses in 2002, a 10 per cent rise on 2001.

Headlines tinged with hysteria about spiralling wage rates in the national media can probably account for some of the renaissance of interest.

'Claims in the press that plumbers could earn £70,000 a year were exaggerated, ' says Charlie Mullins, managing director of £10 millionturnover Pimlico Plumbers.'But if you're fully qualified and working in central London for a good firm, £50,000 is possible.'

Mr Mullins is expecting to take on 30-50 new workers this year.He will have a wide pool to draw from.He receives about 100 applications every week from hopeful candidates.

There was a time when almost every taxi you hailed in London was driven by someone who had previously worked on a building site.Many had been forced out of construction by the harsh economic climate of the early 1990s. But the wind direction is changing again.Mr Mullins now receives letters from taxi drivers and even IT analysts desperate to become plumbers.

'We get people who went into IT during the boom and have suffered and they're now begging to get in with us. Some are prepared to work for free while they learn the trade, so it can't just be about the money, ' he says.

The fact that construction has also started to smarten up its image is also helping.Mr Mullins says that the days of the scruffy plumber turning up in the rusty van have long gone.His plumbers now turn up to work in smart overalls and modern vehicles.'Other companies are copying us.We don't have a problem with that, ' he says.

Geoff Irvine, chairman of the Association of Brickwork Contractors, agrees that his trade has also garnered new respect in recent months.

'Interest from people wanting to get into brickwork has never been as high as in the past two years, ' he says.'I think the advertising campaigns that the CITB has targeted at young people have definitely had some effect.'

But Geoff Wright, president of the Chartered Institute of Builders, believes construction is still not getting the recognition that it deserves from the outside world.

'It's the biggest industry in the country. It's essential for humanity. But I think people still take us for granted, ' he says.

Whatever new glitzy image construction acquires, working on a building site will always be an acquired taste. But the appeal of being part of a team and creating something tangible never dies.

As a young site engineer Mr Whitby remembers working on the M531 through Ellesmere Port.

'It was a rough place to be, but people were incredibly motivated.And when the gang took you out for a drink because they'd exceeded their targets, the feeling was fantastic, ' he says.

The civil engineer Starting salary: about £20,000 Top potential earnings: 'The sky's the limit - a recent survey reported £700,000 for managing directors'- Mark Whitby, managing director, Whitby Bird.

Huda As'ad, contract engineer, Stent Foundations, says: 'I've been working in the industry for three years. I come from a family of engineers so I was used to hearing technical terms around the dinner table.

'I like this job because you've got to have brains as well as brawn - it's quite physical as well as mental work. I started out working on roads but it was when I moved to work on the Northern Ticket Hall at Kings Cross that I had my first real introduction to piling.There was fantastic new kit down there, bigger toys to play with. Piling is cool.

'I like working in a specialist sector because you have the chance to take more responsibility at an earlier age. In my experience, If you ask for responsibility, you can get it.

'In 10 years' time I'd like to be working in a more project managing role on the strategic planning side. But my dream is to be the first female president of the Federation of Piling Specialists. I don't know if that would be possible in my lifetime.

'Most of my friends are engineers now. It's a bit of an exclusive club.You get obsessed with engineering topics, which other people wouldn't understand about.'

Mark Whitby, managing director of Whitby Bird, says:

'Civil engineering is one of the broadest vocational qualifications that you can have - it's a great subject to study. But if you're going to become an engineer you've got to be excited about it.Anyone wanting to succeed in this profession shouldn't think of themselves as anything other than first rate.

'As a company we're spoilt for applications.We get about 500 a year, and the calibre is high. Every single person in our Manchester office has a first class honours degree. But one problem in education generally is the lack of interest shown in science.There has been a criminal decline in the numbers studying, for example, physics A-level.Many of our younger generation engineers go on to work in the developing world, which we encourage.Using their skills for voluntary projects really sells engineering, not only to them, but also to their parents and friends.'

The chartered builder Starting salary: about £20,000 Top potential earnings: £700,000 Anna Raath, a deputy project manager at Taylor Woodrow says: 'I've been working for Taylor Woodrow for about 10 years.The company sponsored me through a civil engineering degree but I'd like to take the exams and get chartered as well.

'I'm currently working on an NHS ProCure21 project at Lewisham hospital for the new accident and emergency department and multistorey car park.My work is very varied because I'm also preparing bids for ProCure21. I like the pre-site phase. If you get the planning right at that stage it should go to site without a hitch. But you have to be flexible.There's a misconception that project management is only about dealing with figures. But you need people skills too.When you've got experts who really understand the structure you've got to make sure that you get the most out of them, and get it down on paper.'

developer Hammerson says:

'Industry has definitely come up since I joined it 41 years ago as a trainee with Wimpey.At that time the architects and professionals thought they were superior to the rest of the team and there was a lack of team working.

That has definitely changed.

'What I really love about it is seeing something through from dream to inception.We recently did the Bull Ring project. It took three and a half years from start to finish and was very satisfying.

'If you're chartered there is a huge variety of career options.Our members work for clients, central or local government, contractors of all sizes and consultants.

'I think construction has turned a corner in terms of intake, but it's like turning round a major tanker - it needs a sustained effort to keep it on track, and to ensure the ageing workforce is replaced.'

The quantity surveyor Starting salary for a graduate: about £22,000 Within 10 years: 'If they're good, they could be earning between £30,000 and £40,000. For people at the top of their careers more than £100,000 is not unachievable'- Peter Sanders, managing director, Gardiner & Theobald.

Pixie Tan, a senior quantity surveyor at Franklin + Andrews, says: 'I'm from Malaysia. I came to the UK for the final year of my degree at South Bank University seven years ago, and didn't go back. Being a QS is a popular job for women in south-east Asia - 30-40 per cent of QSs are female there.My friends and family encouraged me to study it because the economy was booming, but I was also attracted by the chance to travel.

'I'm enjoying working in the UK. It's quite pioneering over here.They keep changing the way they do things all the time. I'm lucky that I've also had the chance to work on lots of different projects.This June I was working on the Olympic bid. It was interesting to work with so many parties and talk to people who were involved with the strategy side.

'To be a QS you need to be a good team player, and to work to deadlines.You have to stick with the job and deliver, no matter what.'

Peter Sanders, a managing partner with Gardiner & Theobald, says: 'I joined the industry as a QS 35 years ago. I was personally attracted by the combination of working in an office and getting out and about on site.

When I started we were regarded as technicians who dealt with numbers, but not as primary advisors.Our position has changed radically: we're now the principal advisor on a project and the first person a client calls.

n See Page 26 'To be a good QS you need a logical mind, methodical approach, imagination and flexibility.

'We have recently noticed a marginal increase in people applying for jobs with us, but we face strong competition from the legal, accounting and financial sectors.'

The plumber Estimated starting salary for a fully qualified plumber: £500 per week Top earnings potential: £50,000.

Dan Davis, technical officer at the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, says: 'My father was a plumber and I used to help him out as a kid.When I was 18 I decided to go into plumbing as a career.A big aspect of the work is job satisfaction.

'In winter you might go to a house where a family is miserable because the heating doesn't work. By the time you leave, the boiler's going, you've turned up the heating and everyone's smiling.

'Initially the rewards aren't great, but if you work hard as a trainee and get experience it can get pretty good.The potential for success depends on how hard you work.You also need to continually retrain to keep up with the technology. If you don't you'll get left behind.'

Charlie Mullins, managing director, Pimlico Plumbers, Lambeth, south London, says: 'I've been in the business for 37 years.When I left school at 15 I did a five-year apprenticeship. I was attracted by the fact that the plumber seemed more respected than the average person walking down the street.

People relied on him.

'I started Pimlico Plumbers when I was 25. I was working for a local estate agent and they gave me a room in their basement as a base from which to do their work for their clients and some of my own.'

'Now we employ 130 staff and have a turnover of £10 million.We're the biggest firm in London and we'll undoubtedly get bigger.We've just moved to new premises. Previously people thought plumbing was for people who were not educated and that it was just a manual trade.That's not the case any more.

'You need to be brighter these days. Plumbing has become very hightech, with computerised boilers. Some people we're taking on now have degrees. I'm also taking on more multi-skilled people who also have electrical or roofing skills.Having extra skills is definitely a bonus. The image of the industry has changed greatly and I think plumbers have had a lot to do with that.Our firm has a customer care department and we're following giant retailers like Marks & Spencer on how to drive customer satisfaction.

'There's no shortage of people wanting to join the sector, but I worry that too many people are taking short cuts.They are doing the courses but not getting the experience.They may be better spoken than the average plumber but without the right experience they could be the next generation of cowboys.'

The bricklayer Going rate for bricklayer: £110-£120 a day.

'Very experienced bricklayers at the top of their game could earn £40,000£50,000 a year, ' says Geoff Irvine, of Irvine Whitlock Geoff Irvine, managing director of Irvine Whitlock and chairman of the Association of Brickwork Contractors says: 'I couldn't get into the navy when I was young because of my eyesight, so I started working as a roofer with my brother, while my mother kept trying to send me to other job interviews. But construction suited me, and the money was good. I later became a hod carrier and started Irvine Whitlock in 1963.

'When I interview people now I tell them that they're either going to love or loath the industry. It usually takes them three months to find out.

But it's also down to natural aptitude.You can often tell the first time someone picks up a trowel if they'll be any good or not.

'We've definitely got more respect since I joined the trade.There's lots of technology to deal with now. Brickies have to be skilled craftsmen, dealing with everything from cladding systems to damp courses.The ABC members are now talking to brick manufacturers - it should have happened years ago - but it demonstrates that we're gaining credibility.

The advice I give people is that you won't know whether the life will suit you or not until you've tried it.'