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  Hard Times For Construction Students
When times are hard, companies look to cut costs, batten down the hatches and hope to survive until the upturn comes. As a result, they're forced into taking a short-term view, cutting back on training and reducing their investment in the future. One of the areas to suffer is recruitment in general, and graduate recruitment in particular. So the first wave of graduates who have actually paid for their education through student fees may find the job they want at the end of it just isn't there.

The CBI's employment trends report shows that almost two fifths of employers have frozen graduate recruitment and a further 10% are reducing the numbers they take on. Only 5% were planning to recruit more graduates. Unsurprisingly, as the number of building projects fell, the construction sector was hardest hit with 54% of the companies imposing a freeze on graduate recruitment.

The Higher Education Careers Service Unit reported 8.9% of graduates out of work, the worst figures since 1993. The figures were even worse for those looking for careers in construction and engineering, with architecture and building, mechanical engineering and civil engineering showing graduate unemployment rates at 10.9%, 11.8% and 11.9% respectively. All surveys showed that graduate recruitment in the public sector had held up well, although this is unlikely to remain the case as the Comprehensive Spending Review starts to take effect.

The Good Old Days...

The current situation is in stark contrast from as recently as two years ago when many firms biggest headache was having more work and opportunities than they could staff. This coupled with a skills shortage of construction professionals meant that young people were actively being incentivised to take construction degree courses. Courses sponsored by Industry and paid holiday placements saw the number and demand for construction courses soar. It was not uncommon for people to be graduating with a job waiting for them at their sponsoring company whilst they sifted through offers from other prospective employers.

Despite the current problems however, having a degree remains an asset, with graduates expected to earn an average of £160,000 more during their career compared to someone with A level qualifications. The downside for the construction sector is that only 25% of jobs in construction require degree level skills, which is below the average. This is due to a number of factors, including the number of manual jobs, the high number of small and medium sized firms (over 250,000) and the fact that 40% of workers are self-employed. Nevertheless, most major companies have graduate recruitment programmes, including Atkins, Balfour Beatty and Carillion even if they have lowered their levels of recruitment.

Advice for Today's Graduates...

The message for graduates seeking work in the construction industry is to research thoroughly and be flexible. Employers are generally looking for candidates who have a relevant degree with a minimum grade of 2:2 or equivalent, so courses in architecture, civil engineering, surveying, construction and building studies are a good start.

As well as academic knowledge, employers welcome a sound technical background and some relevant skills. These include commercial awareness, initiative, teamwork and good IT, communications and organisational skills. Whilst many academic courses will include the development of these skills, employers will value them more if they're gained in conjunction with some sort of work experience.

Having work experience is a big advantage for any graduate seeking employment. This may be gained through an industrial placement year although, if this isn't available, there are other alternatives. Some construction companies do offer gap year opportunities while others, partly because of harder economic conditions, have paid or unpaid internships and placements instead of formal recruitment. If all else fails, students should consider voluntary or temporary positions because any sort of work experience is better than nothing and it at least demonstrates motivation and enthusiasm.

With work in short supply, graduates should be prepared to tailor their job applications and take a position that's offered, even if it isn't the ideal one for their qualifications and ambitions. At least it gets them into a company and gives the opportunity for work experience and future advancement. Even here, management hierarchies may have been reduced and upward promotion opportunities may be few, so patience is needed in the current climate.

In a forthcoming article we will be asking mature student Jason Coffey for his perspective on what its like to be a construction student in the current climate.

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