Education – Sandwich students

It’s a people thing
Les Pickford talks to Neil Rhodes of Bollingbrook about why people skills are more important than technical
knowledge when recruiting a sandwich student
We want to find passion. We want to know
why they’ve chosen building surveying instead
of trying to be a banker, an architect or an
accountant.”
Neil Rhodes, a Partner at Bollingbrook, is talking
about what they look for in a building surveying
sandwich student. But the word passion could also
be used to describe the building consultancy’s attitude
towards recruiting sandwich students – it has hired
one or two students each year for the last six years,
although it didn’t recruit in 2009 due to reduced
volumes of work.
“They have all been from Kingston University,
actually. We get CVs from other universities but when
we’re busy we need the team to be flexible in terms
of timing and travelling, so we like to hire people
based close to the office if possible.” He says the
Kingston students are usually from the South West
London corridor so they’re ideally placed to get into

Universities can open your eyes and help
you understand theories but practical
experience can only be obtained on the job

Neil Rhodes: Employers should have realistic expectations when recruiting sandwich students

14

Building Surveying Journal

July-August 2010

Bollingbrook’s office on Lavender Hill in Clapham.
Rhodes says they don’t hire part-time students as
it’s difficult to get them fully involved in a project,
especially those needing continuity.
The conversation then turns to the old chestnut
of employers complaining about the technical abilities
of graduates. Is he one of them? It appears not. “We
have very realistic expectations about what we are
taking on. Students only really have a grounding in
the subject. Universities can open your eyes and help
you understand theories but practical experience can
only be obtained on the job.”
Crash course
He also appears pragmatic about the time needed
to help students. “It takes a few months before they
can start contributing. Up until then, we invest time
in them and give them a crash course in building
surveying. But students are expected to pick things
up quickly and that’s why our interviews focus on
intelligence and personal skills, their technical
knowledge comes second.”
Bollingbrook has formal APC reviews and training,
Rhodes explains. “Every three months, they are
required to update their APC diary and log book and
they will then sit down to review these with us. It can
be difficult after only a short period, but we try to give
them a rounded experience.”
What helps, he says, is that Bollingbrook provides
all of the core BS services. While normally focusing
on transaction work and project management, the
firm also provides the standard surveys, dilapidations,
party wall, expert witness reports, etc, which allows
students to produce a well-balanced APC diary at
the end of the year.
And with a client list that ranges from Ofcom and
EMI to Invesco and WPP, students aren’t short of
diverse clients to work with.
New skills
“We like to think students learn a lot, and not only
in the obvious technical areas. Their confidence,
maturity and organisation skills all improve,” he says,
“I think when they go back to university they’re
different, and harder working, compared to their fulltime peers.
“There’s a lot of banter in the office so they probably
also develop thicker skins. They can be good fun as
well, which clients like.” Rhodes says Bollingbrook
has a lot of media clients who like seeing advisors
that they can relate to.
So after five years of apparently successful student
placements, he must have students queuing up at his
door? “It surprises us every year. You would think we
would get 20 or 30 CVs but we probably get a dozen

Education – Sandwich students

on average.” He thinks this is a reflection of students
not yet knowing whether or not they’re going to do
a sandwich year and sometimes senses they are
a bit disorganised.
“Our links with Kingston work quite well. We
normally ask for CVs around Christmas and start
filtering through them in January.” Students are
asked to start in May or June or as soon as their
exams are finished.
But this year Bollingbrook started its search later.
“As the market is still delicate we wanted to be
confident on the type of work experience we were
able to offer.”
To be honest with you…
And what will make a student stand out for you? “One
of the key things I look for is honesty. I don’t want a
student going off into ‘no man’s land’ trying to give
me answers to things they know nothing about – this
suggests they are risk takers.
“We also ask how they will respond if they are out
of their knowledge zone. They should always seek
advice and second opinions; that’s how they learn.
“The first interview is about getting a feel for the
person; ticking those boxes of honesty, intelligence,
friendliness, being confident but not over confident,
etc. And understanding what they’ve learned and
what their aspirations are.”
This is where Rhodes will also probe their technical
knowledge, but only to a certain level. “We’ll know
the scope of their course, and the options they’ve
taken, so we’ll expect them to know something. If
they can’t answer the basic questions then we start
to wonder if they’re right for the job.
“But at second interview, we want to know their
background, where their interests lie and will try to
see if they’ll fit into the team.” Technical questions
also get covered but “this stage is more about getting
to know the person.”
A student’s time with Bollingbrook is closely linked
to their APC training. The salaried placements – “we
believe we pay slightly above average salaries for
sandwich students” – are normally for 12 months,
after which they often go travelling before returning
to university the following September.
Learning curve
“My rule of thumb is that it will be 4-6 months before
they start being useful to us,” he says. “We allocate
them to a team, they’ll have a mentor and will do lots
of shadowing. We try to give them as much training
as possible.”
Typical student tasks include: drawing work, taking
photos, minuting meetings, recording facts, speaking
to site operatives to find out the current status of

work and generally “doing the leg work on projects”.
He’s aware there is a potential liability issue but
says it can be appropriate for a student to do a
straightforward task, provided they have appropriate
supervision. “They can be our eyes and ears on a
project, but everything they do will be covered by
our QA processes.”
He says that students also add a good dimension
to the Bollingbrook office. “We are a fairly young
office and they generally fit in well and enjoy the
office environment.”
So if an employer is considering taking on a
sandwich student, how should they go about it?
“Build a relationship with the senior people from
the building surveying course and understand what
the syllabus is. This will help you understand what
is on offer.
“Also look at those students based nearby, say
within an hour from your office. Some days, students
will have to be here at 8am or they won’t finish until
7-8pm. Most firms will need that flexibility.”
He says firms should request CVs early “but only
shortlist 5-6 students for the first interview and then
2-3 for the second. You can then probe and ask
more detailed questions as you filter them out.”

I don’t want a
student going off
into ‘no man’s
land’ trying to
give me answers
to things they
know nothing
about – this
suggests they
are risk takers

Be yourself
Rhodes is confident of having someone in place
by early summer but his advice for students looking
to secure a sandwich year is “be yourself and be
honest”. He recounts the tale of asking one applicant
about which paper he read, “He said The Times but
when I asked how much it cost, he went red in the
face and couldn’t tell me.”
He says students should also accept that they’re
not experts in building surveying. “We will teach them
what they don’t know.” But students should also be
organised, have a lucid CV that certainly doesn’t
contain spelling mistakes and “it should also contain
as many details of their interests as possible. We tend
to allocate a big part of the interview to their hobbies
and interests.
“Recruiting the right sandwich student is more
about the person,” Rhodes concludes, “rather than
what they know.”

Les Pickford is Editor of the
Building Surveying Journal
lpickford@rics.org

Related competencies include: M002, M010

July-August 2010

Building Surveying Journal

15

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