Each year the CIOB runs the Sir Ian Dixon Scholarship, which is a one-year research scholarship on the subject of construction management. This year’s recipients, Alex Stephens from Bouygues UK and George Holder from Costain, are both fairly new to construction, with less than six years in the industry between them. For National Careers Week, they sat down to tell the CIOB how they’ve ended up pursuing a career in construction.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
George: I never had a clear view of exactly what I wanted to do. Every time there was a presentation at school by, say, a doctor or the Army, that was the career I wanted to have by the end of the talk. I always knew I liked the sciences and people, however, so anything that combined both in some way was usually top of the list.
Alex: I had a much more defined plan - I wanted to be a musician. I played a few instruments, including the drums, so all I thought as a kid was that I wanted to somehow be involved in music.
What did you enjoy learning about/were you interested in at school?
A: Music and sport were my hobbies. I played in a few jazz/swing bands so that was what I was passionate about at school. Construction wasn’t even on my radar at this point!
G: The sciences were always my favourite subjects, but I also liked history and English literature at school.
Did you know of anyone that worked in construction when you were growing up?
A: Not at all, I had no connections. School showed me that I had skills in physics so I went on to choose engineering at university because of that.
G: I did. In fact I spent a number of summers working for my cousin who owns his own plumbing firm in Watford; it was a great experience!
When did you first start thinking about a career in construction and why?
G: I left university early, mainly due a crisis of confidence in the end goal, and wanted to do something meaningful that still involved a combination of people and sciences. The lure of construction was the variety of projects and disciplines I could explore within the industry.
A: For me it was when I took a gap year before and after university where I did some labouring and I started to really enjoy the practical side of the work and the feeling of making some tangible, which you could see. When I was at university we were told about careers in aerospace but you couldn’t see the impact your work was having on the bigger picture. I didn’t feel the same sense of reward from standing back and seeing the difference I’d made. I got that feeling in construction.
When you knew you wanted a career in construction, what was the first step you took to make it happen?
G: I had heard about Costain’s apprenticeship programmes through a family friend. A few phone calls with him and Costain’s apprenticeship manager convinced me that it was a great opportunity to enter construction, learn about the industry and get paid for working on a project.
A: When I left university I chose to go travelling and it was after that that I knew this was the industry I wanted to work in. I applied for a job at Bouygues UK and I’ve now been with them almost two years. I didn’t know what my degree could really help me to do at first but during my time here I’ve diversified my role into managing multiple trades as a Graduate Mechanical & Electrical Engineer.
Are there specific people that have inspired or encouraged you along the way?
G: It would be unfair to single out a single person! The network I have has been fantastically supportive and were a great help when undertaking the Sir Ian Dixon scholarship. Equally, I have had great support from managers and mentors along the way who have both encouraged me and given me the time to explore different parts of the industry beyond the day job. Surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about what they do is important to stay motivated.
A: I’ve been really fortunate that, at Bouygues UK, my line manager and director have helped me apply the principles of my degree to my career. They’ve thrown me in the deep end it’s been a challenge but that’s been perfect for me. They’ve given me opportunities and a purpose to my career that I don’t think any other sector gives you at the start of your career and at such a young age. No day is the same so the challenge of that is a great motivator for me.
You both were recipients of the Sir Ian Dixon Scholarship (SID) last year. What did the scholarship mean to your career?
A: It has helped me to develop my skills in research and in presenting findings. It’s also given me unique opportunities such as being able to interact at board level and being thorough in knowing everything I say has to be backed up. It’s also personally been a good experience as it’s promoted me in our business and given me exposure in the industry.
G: The scholarship provided me with an opportunity to research a topic I was passionate about and allowed me to gain in-depth knowledge in an area which has been of benefit to the company as well as my own development. Skill-wise I’ve built on existing industry and academic relationships and networks to undertake the scholarship and, like Alex, it has helped me develop research and reporting skills.
What advice were you given or would you give to young people who don’t know about construction?
A: As a kid I had the impression that construction was just about building walls. I didn’t appreciate the diversity but I wish more people did. I’ve been given such a high level of responsibility at a young age and had opportunities to interact with multiple professions from trades to finance to procurement. It’s a diverse career with great opportunities.
G: Construction is everywhere and so many people work within the environment in different capacities, I would like to think by asking around friends/family people will find someone who has experience of our industry to talk to about what opportunities there might be. There are also a number of resources companies are putting out there now to provide more information on construction. Crossrail, for example, has a great YouTube channel where you can see the latest technology being used on site and their progress updates. The best pieces of advice I have been given all centre around putting yourself out there, whether that be taking opportunities that might be a little outside your comfort zone or getting out there and networking with new people in the industry. I’ve come across a number of exciting and worthwhile projects I might never have heard of otherwise, just by talking to people.
What’s one thing that no one knows about the industry that you wish they did know?
G: The sheer amount of variety in projects which all have such a great impact to people’s lives, especially the fact that many of these are taking places meters away from people as they walk by in cities like London. I understand the various needs for it, but I do sometimes think it is a shame that hoarding hides these fantastic projects away from the public eye! The best bit about my job is meeting teams who are working with cutting-edge technology to bring about change in our industry in such a variety of ways. It’s always great to have discussions with people about how Costain can work with them to take the next step.
A: There is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Not one day is the same and the best advice I’ve been given is to push on, you learn through where you go wrong as much as where you go right. From day one I’ve been trusted and given the freedom to learn as I work. We need to encourage people in our industry to go out and share their experiences though. We need to be talking about what it’s like and the roles we have. If we want to engage more young people then we need to be talking and sharing what we do to get them hooked like we are.
What are your ambitions for the next step in your career?
A: I’m ambitious and I want to be a project director. I’m looking to divert into civil engineering and quantity surveying at Bouygues UK, with the ultimate goal of directing the jobs from the top.
G: I’m having a fantastic time with the mergers and acquisitions team at Costain. Whatever I do next I’m looking forward to continuing to work at the intersection of technology, infrastructure and corporate finance. Having taken an unorthodox route into construction there is no clear path for my career, so long as I am continuously learning and gaining experience I’m generally happy! I certainly think we are going to see significant change in the industry over the next few years and I’d like to thinking that the role I end up working in might not even exist yet.