Why I went from silver chains to supply chains

Looking for a more secure income than making jewellery could offer, one art graduate was inspired to retrain as a quantity surveyor thanks to the creativity and variety of the profession


  • Claire Purday MRICS

04 October 2023

decommissioned gasholder


Construction Journal: You have a background in jewellery making. How did you choose that career, and what then led you into quantity surveying?

Claire Purday: When you're in school and you're being channelled down a path towards university, you tend to choose what you're good at. And for me, it was always art.

I went to Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen and ended up on the jewellery and silversmithing route. I absolutely loved it. It was great fun being in a workshop for so many years, creating wonderful pieces and selling them.

But I was working full time as an optical consultant to make sure I had a regular income, and I thought: 'I do enjoy my jewellery, but it's turning into more of a hobby. I'll do it in my own spare time. It's not going to generate regular income, and I want to be mentally challenged.'

I like having a target that I'm aiming for, and what I was doing wasn't giving me that. So I was looking into what I could do with my BA (Hons), and I remembered posters in the architecture building at university that asked arts graduates whether they had ever thought of being a quantity surveyor.

I did a bit of investigation into the profession. I'd always been good at maths and I'm good at creative and technical drawing, so I decided to apply for Heriot-Watt University's MSc in commercial management and quantity surveying. That meant I could still work full time at the optician and study in my spare time by distance learning.

CJ: A common assumption by people outside surveying is that it's quite a mechanical job; but you saw a lot of creativity in it. Can you talk about that?

CP: I think the creativity lies in visualising in advance what's being built. It's a skill I didn't realise that not everyone had. Being able to see a two-dimensional drawing and understand how that's going to look and work as a physical space is very valuable for this sector.

It's especially important when you're trying to communicate to a client or a stakeholder who can't visualise this, because it means you can walk them through it. It also means you've got a bit more appreciation of the impacts of certain design decisions, because you can see it in your head.

Although I'm dyslexic, that wasn't picked up until I was doing the dissertation for my jewellery degree. Understanding books and writing is quite difficult for me. But when I see an object being built then I can put two and two together and it sticks in my brain. Again, it's that visual element that is very important for me.

When I was doing my master's I got through this, and passed. But I think if I had been working in the industry and learning from that experience, my grades would have been a lot better because I could have seen what was being asked of me.

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CJ: After your master's you moved to Nottingham to work with consultancy EDGE. What was that first experience in the sector like?

CP: The Nottingham team I worked for were fantastic, in that they made me feel no question was a stupid question. That was the whole point: keep asking questions so that you can learn.

'Why are you doing that? Why is that hole being dug there? What's going in there? Why is that going around the concrete?' All those sorts of things. Having others believe in your ability when you're starting out is very comforting, and helps you settle in.

Working alongside the directors based in the Nottingham office, I got to be involved in a wide variety of jobs including projects in food and manufacturing, education and aviation.

I also worked on a care home project, where the facility had to remain operational and allow for 24/7 emergency access throughout. This put unique constraints on the contractor that we had to resolve to meet the client's requirements.

We conducted a lot of feasibility studies, in which I helped clients assess the options available, including different procurement strategies. I had to explain the impact of these, clearly describing the benefits and risks so clients could make clear and informed decisions. I also helped them consider various design proposals.

I was also involved in the construction of a custom new-build flour mill, which is quite unusual. It was interesting to see from an operational point of view how something that would have been a manual task historically such as milling flour is now almost entirely robotic, and how few people actually need to be working inside. I also got to understand why it was built in a certain way – including blast protection, for instance, which I might not have previously considered for a flour mill.

I was involved in refurbishment of the student union and reconfiguring teaching spaces for Nottingham Trent University as well.

CJ: That's the great thing about being in a smaller business, isn't it? You get very broad experience.

CP: That's 100% right: even if it's a colleague wanting you to check a measurement, you're then also looking at a car dealership or an airport, perhaps. I like the variety, because if I were stuck doing the same thing day in, day out it would drive me bananas.

CJ: You're in the utility sector now, working in the procurement and supply chain team as a contract manager for SGN. What does that look like for you, day to day?

CP: Because we are regulated by Ofgem we've got projects that need to be completed within a certain period of time. I advise various business functions in SGN of the different procurement options for urgent projects that need to be completed quickly, as well as helping project managers administer the contracts.

I also provide regular financial updates throughout projects, and my experience means I can help teams obtain additional funding from the business by supporting this with reasoned evidence. We also need to look to the future, so we can submit business cases to Ofgem to fund projects for a price-control period.

Using the knowledge in the procurement and supply chain, we help a large number of functions produce concise business plans with reasoned recommendations and funding requirements.

I'm quite closely aligned with the property team, too. We're building our new head office at the moment Horley, Surrey. I regularly visit multiple depots and sites, which I enjoy as it offers variety in the job.

Certain assets need full refurbishment and rebuilding, so there is a lot of property work. But I'm also getting exposure to a lot more work on the gas distribution network side, such as testing redundant infrastructure for new hydrogen gas facilities.

That's an aspect that I'm particularly interested in because it's a new section of the industry. It's quite an exciting time.

CJ: That must be interesting, because very few people get to see the cutting edge of these headline-grabbing, futuristic projects the way you are.

CP: Absolutely. The gas distribution networks are building an evidence base for hydrogen home heating with the UK and Scottish governments. SGN is running H100 Fife in the towns of Buckhaven and Denbeath and aims to bring green hydrogen to 300 homes by late 2024.

On a personal level, it's exciting to be involved in a project that can make a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions.

CJ: When you moved from the consultancy to the infrastructure role, was there a moment where you thought: 'I'm already comfortable with this, I know this from my master's or my APC'?

CP: With this infrastructure role, having the contract management and administration experience helps with the area of the business that I report in to. Whether you are working for individual clients or a large infrastructure organisation, interpersonal skills and many aspects of contract administration are universal.

We're in the procurement and supply chain function, and the post-contract management is a small section of what SGN does as a whole.

Stakeholders sometimes don't have a full appreciation of the work that's involved, which is understandable. So my role is helping fill that gap, and explaining the implications if we don't do things in a certain way as per the contract.

As every quantity surveyor is aware the NEC4 is quite an admin-heavy contract suite, with a greater emphasis on issuing notices, holding risk reduction meetings and agreeing on financial changes as projects progress, with more key timescales than the JCT.

So when you've got a lot of builders who will only work under a JCT contract but sign up to an NEC one because they want to work with us, the need for someone such as me to highlight the importance of early warnings and compensation events becomes essential.

Having that previous experience of how to manage the change control process, look at drawings and compare original with new is a vital skill.

No matter which kind of contract you're working with, you've always got to play this kind of spot the difference to understand what's changing and be able to justify it – maybe to our client or a senior stakeholder. You need to communicate the change that has happened and why, and whether you or the contractor is responsible for dealing with it.

I think when you're treating every job as if it's your own money, you do want to know where every pound goes and why you are paying for something new that wasn't included in the original scope.

Having that skill, I am able to communicate to my CFO, the property team or other members of the directorate what I'm going to do and the reason why – for instance, because it's going to save money or protect our position contractually.

CJ: Is this a sector that maybe other quantity surveyors should have another look at? Are there more transferable skills than you initially expected there would be?

CP: It's a great sector to be in, although the work you do can vary from team to team or company to company. I've been involved in a wide range of activities and been able to use my financial reporting skills to improve financial management in the post-contract construction role, and this can be applied to multiple business functions.

Regardless of what the day-to-day role entails, if the company and the ethos match your values then you are putting yourself in a good position to succeed. SGN's values very much tie in with mine, and I think they also closely align with what RICS sets out in its standards as well. That's what I like.

It's the family feel I have in my procurement team that makes me want to stay. They're also investing in me as a person, to do an LLM in construction law with Strathclyde University. That's a lot of money for a company to say: 'We believe in you. You can do it. Let us pay for you and help your development.'

Just because a utility provider might not necessarily be regulated by RICS, if you're following an RICS standard then you're working at that level.

As I'm employed by a gas distribution network I feel as though I'm doing my job and fulfilling my standards as well. I am providing a service for the public, and I pride myself on working in a fair and professional manner for their benefit.

Another thing is that the benefits you get as an employee of a utility company are better than those I have seen in consultancy. One key aspect for me was maternity cover. I was looking for jobs when I moved back up to Scotland, so I asked every company that I was considering: 'What is your family policy?'

In most cases they were offering between six and ten weeks of full pay and that was it. But SGN offered six months full pay and, as I was a first-time mum, it was very important to me to know that I could have that time with my child without feeling financial pressures.

With utilities, if you've got the passion and you want to develop your role then you can. You've just got to know how to do it and who to speak to. As a quantity surveyor, an employer's agent or project manager, you've got those people skills and you can sell what you do easily to the business.

I would highly recommend working in the utilities sector for quantity surveyors, as it adds breadth to your experience, involving similar principles to quantity surveying but giving you exposure to procurement processes that you may not be familiar with.

I have also found that it is not all just pipework: there is a lot of variety out there, and it is an exciting time to be at the forefront of change in the energy industry.

'With utilities, if you've got the passion and you want to develop your role then you can'

Claire Purday MRICS is a contracts manager and quantity surveyor in SGN's procurement and supply chain

Contact Claire: Email | LinkedIn

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