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Mind the skills gap

Does surveying have a skills gap – with graduates not properly prepared to enter the profession? Or, is a more important gap, the one between the cutting-edge courses on offer and the old-fashioned image of the profession? We gathered all sides – institution industry, academia and apprentice – to find out

Author: Stuart Watson

07 March 2020

Photography Michael Leckie

Photography Michael Leckie

PANEL /

SHANE BALZAN: Associate director, education and qualifications standards, RICS

PROFESSOR MIKE RILEY FRICS: Pro-vice chancellor, faculty of engineering and technology (interim) at Liverpool John Moores University

CHRIS WELCH FRICS: Partner and board director at Gardiner & Theobold in London; chairman of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers in Surveying employer working group 

JORDANNE WILSON ASSOCRICS: Apprentice building surveyor at Savills in Birmingham 

Are there sufficient established pathways into the profession?

CHRIS WELCH / We have to encourage all entry routes to get people into our profession whether they are a 16-year-old or a 45-year-old with no qualifications. We want many doors into the profession but only one door out the one that gives you that MRICS. Degree apprentices really are very important to employers. Establishing them brought employers, academia and RICS together and it was astonishing to see what we could achieve. We have been trying to get the government to approve a level 7 chartered surveying apprenticeship [equivalent to a master's degree] so that we have the right number and type of apprenticeship placements for the different surveying disciplines.

JORDANNE WILSON / The apprentice scheme is a great leveller in terms of opening up surveying to people who otherwise wouldn't know about it or consider it an option.I come from a non-property background and if I hadn't come through the apprentice route, I wouldn't have had access to the information and opportunities that I needed.

Degree apprenticeships are supposed to help social mobility, but because an apprenticeship is not a full-time course, it is not always seen as the same as a full-time university degree. That perception needs to be challenged, and with a lot of people the stigma is slowly receding. I think apprenticeship is a really underrated pathway. I will be doing five years of a degree part-time and learning my job while I do it, so I will have three more years' experience when I qualify compared with a graduate who does a three-year surveying degree and then studies for their APC.

MIKE RILEY / As a degree apprentice graduate you are a graduate just the same and a full-time degree graduate takes the same number of years to get to the same end point as you. You should have reached the same point by different pathways but your learning outcomes, capabilities and expectations of your career pathways should be demonstrably equivalent. The demand for degree apprenticeships hasn't been anything like what the government thought it would be though.

SHANE BALZAN / We are undertaking an "entry into the profession" review at the moment. We want to ensure that there are many routes to membership that are consistent globally, encouraging as many people as possible through to membership, whether that be through an accredited degree or through building up experience. It is important to have a global standard, so that regardless of the pathway someone who qualifies in the UK has the same knowledge and skills as someone in Australia or Sri Lanka, or anywhere else. We aim to set a benchmark, determined with the help of employers, which defines the relevant skills and competencies that people need for the particular pathways that lead to membership.

Are there any particular skills gaps that we need to address?

MR / School-leavers' skills in reading, writing and arithmetic are just as much of a challenge for universities as they are for employers. The maths skills and level of English articulation required in a degree, particularly a vocational degree, is much higher than the expectations of GCSE, and when it comes to catching up, the window is only open for so long. I like to think it is not as bad a problem as we sometimes assume, though. You only need a few students to inspire the polemic.

JW / When I first started, writing professionally was the first hurdle I had to overcome because you can get very good grades in school by doing creative writing but that is a completely different way of writing. However, younger people sometimes bring other skills to the workplace like social media use.

CW / What we all do is try to understand, analyse and manipulate data. We have to evolve our standards to deal with digital and artificial intelligence and develop the type of people that come into our businesses in order to be able to harness that.

MR / We only scratch the surface of digital literacy, but we have to routinely bring a much higher level of digital capabilities into the knowledge base of construction, surveying and property cyber-physical systems, construction 4.0, the digital twinning of the construction and property sectors  advanced digital enablers associated with the springboard of the fourth industrial revolution.

SB / Two years ago, RICS introduced data and new technologies into the suite of competencies. The recent Futures report has identified that as an area for development, and it is something we will be looking at as part of the "entry into the profession" review. We need to keep on top of the use of artificial intelligence, data and other technologies being used in the profession, not only for future members but also so that our current members, have access to relevant CPD and lifelong learning.

MR / Switched-on students will have a huge obligation on them because they will be agents of change. If they are going to become industry leaders and change the world, embracing the technologies that are not yet widely used in the profession will provide them with real ammunition for progressing in their careers.

JW / At the moment it seems like employers think that people who are coming into the industry have to push the change, those people feel that the employer has to be pushing the change to enable them to do it, and others think the RICS should be pushing the change because they set the standards. Maybe if everybody was pushing the change we would get somewhere.

"Establishing degree apprenticeships brought employers, academia and RICS together, and it was astonishing to see what we could achieve" Chris Welch FRICS, Gardiner & Theobold

MR / T-levels [new courses that follow GCSEs and will be equivalent to three A-levels] will be introduced in September and will provide an alternative vocational pathway to A-levels. The idea is that you do 80% of your learning in college and 20% in the workplace and that it leads you into a differently enabled vocational space. The take-up is pretty low at the moment. There are not many providers, and because it is a further-education and school-level initiative, they are in a crowded space because there are A-levels, there are vocational A-levels, design engineering and construction qualifications HSEs and a raft of qualification variants. Time will tell what the take-up is.

CW / As an employer it is harder if you get someone at 16 because the level of pastoral care needed is greater, which is not to say we shouldn,t do it, but it is something we have to learn about.

Is it still important to become chartered?

MR / A disproportionately low number of degree apprentices take the end point assessment because their thinking is that if they get to the end of their study they don't need to be chartered to work in the industry.

JW / When I got to know some other apprentices, I was surprised to find that they worked in firms where nobody except for the director was chartered. I now know that is sometimes the case, but if you have the opportunity to do something, why would you not do it to the highest level given that RICS is the gold standard?

MR / I would expect a correlation between the kind of firm a student is studying a degree apprenticeship with and the APC pass rate. We use the term "employer" generically, but in surveying, property and construction, you have some large firms with well-structured training programmes and a critical mass of students, and some small contractors with an estimator who they want to send into a degree apprentice programme and who is not supported in their career trajectory in the same way. In contracting, the culture isn't necessarily one of pushing people through to chartership because they don't need it as a contractor's quantity surveyor as long as they can do the job. The culture in private practice is to get chartered because that is the gold standard.

If you look at the number of degree apprentices that go on to become chartered it is far less proportionally than those who come through the traditional graduate route. Between a quarter and a third of degree apprentices are taking the end-point assessment. That is a big problem for RICS and particularly for universities because 20% of the funding is retained until the student passes that assessment, so having a low proportion of people take it is financially catastrophic.

CW / Around 40-45% of quantity surveyors on the chartered apprentice scheme are from contractors. BAM and other companies have said we are going to train people for chartered surveyorship, so for me, CIOB [the Chartered Institute of Building] and RICS should come together and sort it out. One of the things we try to do in the employers' group is to put the profession first. It is easier for the big firms, because if we have a shortfall of surveyors we can train them, but in a firm of 20 people they haven't got a full training team and the big practices have to help them with that. For instance, we have a 60-seat lecture theatre and we never have 60 students. We could be opening that space up to those who need it.

Historically, surveyors have done a degree, then after graduation they work for a firm while they study for their professional exams. With degree apprenticeships it is now the university that provides pastoral care between conferring the degree and taking the APC, and there is less knowledge and experience available in universities to help students through that process.

SB / The role of professional bodies including RICS has been changing and will continue to change. In the past, members or their employees would pay their membership fee once a year and that would be the extent of the relationship. With new technology things are changing more quickly, so there is more emphasis on CPD and lifelong learning and that is where we have another important role to play, to collaborate and have an ongoing relationship with our members throughout the course of their working life.

What needs to be done to ensure that educational standards remain fit for purpose?

SB / RICS is, and should continue to be the conduit between industry on the one hand and academia on the other in a tripartite relationship. But there is a fourth stakeholder: the individuals who are learning, and we need to ensure we put them at the heart of everything we do.

MR / In recent years the nature of the academics on surveying degree programmes has changed. The need to find the right people to perform well against the academic criteria that are crucial to universities' survival probably means they are not going to be chartered surveyors who have formerly practised. I know of a degree programme that had to be closed down because of a lack of chartered surveyors with PhDs to teach. This is the crisis point where we need to come together and determine our collective agenda where we recognise industry's needs, industry recognises the pressures on academia, and RICS, as the regulatory body that accredits courses, has a role in providing a framework that encapsulates all of those things.

JW / Practitioners make good lecturers. Even though I have not been in the industry that long I can usually tell the difference between lecturers who have worked in it and those who haven't. There is a different quality to the information you are getting and being able to access that lived experience benefits students, coming through any pathway in being able to develop the skills they need.

CW / We really have to cooperate. We have offered to share our educational resources for professional exams with all the other big firms instead of competing with each other. We need RICS to be the conduit and it has to be better at communicating to all of us. Our focus has to be on helping academia to deal with the funding model and the lack of people who can train. We know from the apprentice programme that we can work together to solve the problems each of us have.

Were evolving our own processes and practices in response to the insight youve been sharing with us including skills and training. To find out how see  RICS Future of Surveying

Photographs by Michael Leckie

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