Construction projects can be high pressure environments where meeting tight budgets, technical challenges and strict deadlines can require partnership working from a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and agendas. But a couple of experiences I’ve had this year have shown me that all of this is achievable.
In the last 12 months, I’ve travelled to Texas and Ireland to take part in student construction competitions – and the experience has been a real eye opener.
As well as working for BAM in the Midlands, where I was site manager on the recently completed Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Facility for Rolls Royce subsidiary Aero Engine Controls, I study construction management one day a week.
I do this at Birmingham City University (BCU), which has a partnership with Auburn University in Alabama. I was fortunate to be one of two BCU students who travelled to the US to meet up with two Auburn undergraduates and go on to Texas to compete in an Associated Schools of Construction (ASC) event in February .
These competitions are huge in the US, where employers help fund them as a branding and recruitment exercise – it’s not unusual for students to be spotted and offered job interviews. Now they are starting to spread to other parts of the world, and so I took part in a similar ASC contest in Dublin in November.
Basically, the competitions involve teams of students having to bid for a mocked-up project with realistic parameters but short deadlines. Often a curve-ball, as the Americans like to call it, is thrown in half way – some critical new information that changes all your plans in an instant.
Generally you have one intensive day to come up with your solution for meeting the brief – and to present a report. Then this will be picked apart by industry experts and you have to defend your ideas and try to win the competition. It’s pretty much like an accelerated version of a real world procurement process.
I’ve learned so much from the two competitions. My first, and possibly most important, observation is that you can achieve way more than you would think possible when everyone comes together and pitches in. BAM uses collaborative working with clients and subcontractors on real projects, and the value of such thinking was crystal clear when trying to react to new data a few hours before a deadline in the student events.
Secondly, I learned that although construction is a global industry, and involves certain commonly acknowledged physics, it is also carried out very differently in various parts of the world. The Americans seem to get involved much earlier in the design and get closer to their clients. They also give people broader roles and split the tasks up less. Plus they are great with technology – and of course they use words like schedule instead of programme.
I learned a lot from going over there and being introduced to their ways of working, and hopefully they learned from us as well. BAM Midlands project manager Carl Ward and managing surveyor Alistair Pinches gave a presentation in Birmingham before the Dublin contest – even I was learning things about the UK tender process.
On top of all the excellent benefits in terms of construction, there was a cultural side to the exchange. We went to the Deep South and saw the sheer scale of their campuses and the pride the students have in their universities. On their part, the Americans could not believe how sociable and friendly the atmosphere was in Dublin.
I hope to go back to Texas next February and hope that more construction companies in the UK can recognise the benefits of investing time and money in these student competitions. After all, it’s a great way for industry professionals of the future to develop their skills.