Construction work experience: what you need and how to get it?

A picture of hard hats

Relevant experience such as an internship is key to getting a graduate scheme place in civil and structural engineering, construction or surveying. Know what you need, when to apply and how to beat the competition to get that sandwich year, summer placement or work-shadowing opportunity.

Competition for construction, civils and surveying graduate jobs is fierce, but industry-related work experience boosts your applications for these vacancies. It can help you do the following:

  • convince recruiters that you have a genuine desire to join the industry
  • give answers that draw on real-life industry experiences in graduate scheme applications and interviews
  • show that you can carry out work similar to that of a graduate employee
  • develop a network of industry contacts who might be able to help you in your search for jobs
  • develop the non-academic skills that you’ll need in the working world.

What’s more, after completing work experience in your second year, the employer may offer you sponsorship for your final year.

Types of construction work experience – it’s not just about internships

Most formal placements are open to students in the second year of their degree and you should apply early in the academic year – many students leave it too late. Start researching placements in your first year, and try to get less formal experience with smaller organisations. Work experience options include:

  • a year in industry as part of your degree, sometimes known as a sandwich year
  • summer or vacation placements, usually aimed at penultimate-year students but also keen first years or finalists
  • unpaid placements or work-shadowing, where you follow a construction professional throughout their working day to gain an understanding of their job
  • volunteering projects, for example house-building overseas

Competition for construction internships and placements

You should aim to get as much work experience as you can, with different types of employers, to find out what suits you and give you a breadth of experience. Although construction work experience has been in short supply in recent years, things are now looking up and more opportunities are becoming available. But they are still a challenge to get, so follow our tips for success.

How to find construction industry work experience

  • Visit your careers service – they’ll advertise work experience vacancies and be in touch with potential employers.
  • Work placement tutors can inform you about sponsorship opportunities for placement students.
  • Attend careers fairs at your university and beyond: they’re fantastic opportunities to talk to employers about work experience opportunities.

Tips on applying for work experience in civil and structural engineering, construction and surveying

The same rules apply for work experience applications as for graduate job applications – see the articles listed below for help getting them right. Do your research on the employer and write about why you want to do work experience at that company in particular: reasons could include their expertise in a certain area or the recent projects they’ve worked on. Also write about how you have the skills to do well in construction – again, see the articles listed below.

Employers don’t expect the same level of technical knowledge and experience as they do of graduates. But they do expect enthusiastic people who can articulate their motivation for working in construction and are aware of current industry issues.

For a formal placement scheme, employers might ask for a CV and covering letter or for you to complete an online application form. Firms that offer these schemes will not welcome speculative applications for work-shadowing – reserve this tactic for small and local companies. If you are applying speculatively, you’ll need a CV and covering letter. Your letter should clearly state what you want and why, the skills and abilities you could contribute, and when you would be available.

Your university careers service or departmental work placement tutor will probably be willing to check your work experience application before you send it. Take advantage of this.

What to do if you can’t find a work placement

If you don’t get onto a formal scheme, there are other things you can do:

  • Make the most of any opportunities offered by your university: go on all study trips to sites and employers.
  • Go for labouring/short-term agency work (if you want to work in building surveying, try a part-time job in an estate agency).
  • Speculatively apply for work-shadowing (observation) or work experience opportunities.Tailor your application to the company (show that you know what the company does and the projects they work on) and clearly explain why you want work experience with them in particular.
  • Take a year out and volunteer on a charity construction project.
  • Get a non-construction job in a construction firm – you may hear of other opportunities you can apply for?

Construction industry employers like non-construction work experience

The TARGETjobs panel of construction recruiters all agree that work experience – whatever its form, and whatever the sector – makes candidates well-rounded and very employable. Take up opportunities such as bar work, a summer job at the local supermarket, office temping, SU electioneering, volunteering, gap year travelling etc, then sell it to recruiters in your applications for graduate schemes. To do this, consider what you learned from the experience: in a retail role, you will have developed teamwork and communication skills and learned how to deal tactfully with tricky customers – these are all talents that a construction employer will be looking for.

Advice from graduates who’ve got jobs in the construction industry

Start looking for work experience as early as you can, even in your first year: don’t wait for your department’s work placement tutors to feed opportunities to you. James Day, graduate public health engineer, AECOM

I got a receptionist job with Skanska UK over the summer and came across a placement opportunity for the next summer, which I succesfully applied for. After the placement, I was offered a job. Alison Davis, environment adviser, Skanska UK

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