CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

The day job: a quantity surveyor in Canada

With surveyors in short supply in Canada there is considerable demand for internationally qualified professionals, as one building surveying graduate turned cost consultant reflects

Author: Rob Wilson

08 October 2021

Drone shot of the Vancouver skyline

Construction Journal: Tell us a little about your background.

Rob Wilson: I am originally from Leeds in the UK and am currently working in Vancouver, Canada. During my undergraduate degree I spent a placement year at Faithful+Gould in Leeds, and when I graduated, I moved to Auckland, New Zealand. I spent four fantastic years there, and then I just wanted to be a little closer to home – believe it or not, the west coast of Canada is still nearer to the UK than New Zealand is.

CJ: How did your career progress?

RW: I graduated as a building surveyor in 2010, but job opportunities in the UK at the time were very limited following the global financial crisis. I was one of five students from around 150 on my university course who went straight into a job after graduation. That gives you an idea of the challenges at the time.

I went to New Zealand where they were having a leaky building crisis – and yes, that is actually what it was called! My role, as a graduate, was to undertake building pathology investigations and write reports about why the buildings were defective. These defects ultimately resulted in owners taking legal action against the city councils, manufacturers, builders and other parties involved. I spent some fantastic years at Maynard Marks, a multi-disciplinary consultancy based in Auckland.

Within two or three years of graduating, then, I was providing expert witness opinions in mediations and arbitrations. Although these were usually presented by a senior colleague, I was still producing the reports themselves and contributing to the proceedings. This was an invaluable lesson in making sure that my reporting was clearly articulated and factually correct – experienced lawyers, experts and arbitrators were reviewing my work word for word.

I then started working in a project management role in New Zealand, overseeing the remediation of the defective buildings I had previously investigated. That was a great lesson in managing and completing complex projects.

The biggest challenge was that you didn't know the extent of damage until the cladding had been removed. Therefore, a fluid approach to project management was key, which involved working with the team closely to rectify any issues encountered – of which there were many.

Four years later I moved to Vancouver. I had known from an early age that I wanted to live in Canada; but I didn’t know what I would do in terms of work because the building surveying profession as such doesn't exist here. So, I found my way into the HQ of a project and cost management firm called BTY Group.

I felt at first as though I was starting my professional career again, because I was working beyond the building surveying skills I had learned over the previous four years. However, I soon realised that the skills I had developed in that time were easily transferred into my new life as a cost consultant. That should be a reassuring lesson for anybody planning a career pivot.

I began at BTY as a project consultant. Seven years later, I work in company's senior leadership team and co-lead its project monitoring service line. Our team advises lenders and other stakeholders about the risks associated with their involvement in the largest projects in Canada. I am proud to be part of our industry-leading team, which works with most Canadian developers and all the country's lenders.

My progress at BTY is something I am particularly proud of, and I am acutely aware that the company has provided me with the tools and opportunities to achieve this success. Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Since I became director, I am pleased to say that the company has grown in terms of head count, services offered and office locations. We are now a multinational company, with an exciting period of growth ahead.

The company's growth has provided me with a number of opportunities to work on projects across North America, in the Caribbean and in Europe. We are now focusing on growth across these and other regions, and I am closely involved with this. We are concentrating on loan monitoring, project management, infrastructure advice, cost management, and data and technology services.

In addition to my role at BTY, I'm also working with a great team on RICS Governing Council. I was elected to the position two years ago and I have a year remaining. It's been a challenging but amazing experience for me so far. I remain optimistic about the future of RICS.

CJ: At what point did you get your RICS qualification?

RW: I became chartered when I was working in New Zealand, around three years into my career. At the time, I felt as though I was getting a good variety of experience because I was managing projects, undertaking building investigations and helping with expert witness work. It provided me with a great basis for completing my APC.

About a year ago, I also achieved RICS fellowship, following a sustained period working with the local RICS board here in British Columbia (BC) and RICS Governing Council. I am really proud of the work the local chapter has done in BC. We have a great group of professional volunteers who are raising the profile of the organisation here.

CJ: Given you've been working in different countries, how important has learning about different cultures been in your job?

RW: I haven't worked in countries where the culture has been very different, as the UK, New Zealand and Canada are all Western cultures. While I haven't had to adapt much, I have had to get used to the differences in language and in building standards and regulations. But in terms of dealing with people, it hasn't been a particular challenge for me.

CJ: What is the best part of your job?

RW: The most rewarding part of my job is watching the people I lead, in turn, lead others. This gives me confidence that the future is bright for BTY and the profession as a whole.

CJ: What are the biggest challenges in your current role?

RW: Finding suitably qualified professionals is definitely the biggest challenge. In Canada, there isn't a quantity surveying degree per se, so a large proportion of our staff come from the UK or Ireland.

Not only is finding people a significant challenge, we then have to hold on to them. Quite naturally when people come to Canada from the UK and Ireland, they'll have a view to staying here for one, two or maybe three years, as long as they're eligible to do so; but ultimately many of them want to settle in their homeland.

While retention is a challenge for the local industry, BTY does a great job in fulfilling employees' career aspirations, so it manages to keep hold of top talent. When it comes to Vancouver, the ocean and the mountains help as well, of course!

CJ: What changes would you like to see in the industry, and how can we make them?

RW: First, like most professionals, I would say that the industry needs to be more sustainable. It is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so it's vital that we, as professionals, make construction practices more sustainable, because we're on a dangerous path. I do think there has been some improvement, but I don't think there's been anywhere near enough. We need to be more innovative.

In addition, the skills shortage is a problem that's only getting worse. I don't just mean a shortage of professional skills, which is more highly publicised; we are seeing substantial problems in the local market at all levels on construction sites. The lack of labour supply is driving up costs, making projects unviable and ultimately pricier for clients and building users.

'The lack of labour supply is driving up costs, making projects unviable and ultimately pricier for clients and building users'

CJ: I've had conversations where people have said, 'I understand carbon measurement or sustainability are really important on big projects, but I'm working with a housebuilder who's saying "I don't care about sustainability, I want the lowest cost."' How do you think professionals can navigate that and try to push for sustainable outcomes?

RW: This is a delicate and complicated issue. If you're a small housebuilder trying to maximise profits – or even turn a profit at all in some cases – you'll always be looking to work in the most cost-effective way. The environmental impacts of your processes become secondary. So change has to come from legislation, which may include the introduction of subsidies, or from putting compulsory measures in place.

During the pandemic the whole world ground to a halt, but people and businesses still adapted. Why can't we do the same when it comes to sustainability? We have an environmental crisis – most people know it – so why can't professionals, legislators or those in authority put similar measures in place to ensure that we're doing whatever we can to combat it?

It can be done. We've seen it. We have worked with an amazing developer called Citu, based in Leeds, UK. It is doing incredible work by creating aesthetically pleasing buildings where living a sustainable life is made easy. Its designs are bold and innovative and picking up awards almost on a monthly basis. Its mission is simple: to tackle climate change. If Citu can do it, why can't developers from around the world do the same?

CJ: What are your goals for the future?

RW: My immediate focus is always what's happening today, this month or this year. On that basis, I'd like to see the team I am part of continue progressing. I would like to see new leaders emerging internally, and everybody in the team becoming the best versions of themselves.

In the long term, I would like to continue my personal and professional development as well. I'm very happy at BTY Group and would like to keep on climbing the ranks to the executive group.

CJ: What advice would you give people at the early stages of their construction career?

RW: The first thing is: always learn. It doesn't matter whether you're in the early stages or towards the end of your career, there are always ways you can learn. Listen to people, try to understand them. If somebody is offering their opinion, always try to understand it and allow your mind to be changed – this is not a weakness.

My advice for somebody in the early stages of their career is that you don't always need to work on the biggest and the best projects straightaway. Let's say you had an opportunity to work on the construction of the Shard – of course that's an amazing project and it would be brilliant to have on your résumé. But, as a young professional on that project you're going to be taking the minutes or providing administrative support, rather than leading.

Conversely, if you lead a lower-profile project, such as a lower-value retail fit-out, for example, you'd likely be running that project, or at least nearer the top table. Whether you're doing the costing or the project management, you will more likely work on the scheme from concept to completion, picking up valuable skills along the way.

The fundamentals don't change substantially between a project of that size and a huge one such as the Shard. So you'll be learning transferrable skills that you can deploy on blue-chip projects as your career progresses.

A final bit of advice: if you're lucky enough to have a great role model or a great leader, someone who influences your career for the better, always show gratitude to that person. Try to maintain that relationship with them, because they are the people who will ultimately have the most positive impact on your career, aside from yourself.

But with that in mind, I would always advise taking time to help others in the industry to learn from your experiences. Even after a few years you will have something to offer other graduates or aspiring professionals.

Rob Wilson is director at BTY Group

Contact Rob: Email | LinkedIn

'My advice for somebody in the early stages of their career is that you don't always need to work on the biggest and the best projects straightaway'

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