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From Labourer to Engineer: How to Craft a Successful Construction Career in the UK

Henryk Jakubiak

Henryk Jakubiak

Co-Founder, Fixed

When I first started out as a labourer on a construction site, I didn't know that I was about to embark on a journey that would lead me to a rewarding and fulfilling career. I was young, eager to work, and ready to make a difference, although at the time had no idea what path I might go down. I had bounced around a couple of different industries from hospitality to pensions administration (!) and found each one as unfulfilling as the next so had fairly low expectations for the working world and the idea of even having a career. Over the years, I have come to realize that the UK construction industry offers a wealth of opportunities for individuals from all kinds of backgrounds who are committed to growth and hard work. In this blog, I'll share with you how I progressed from a labourer to an engineer and share some insights into some ways in which you too can unlock your potential for success in this dynamic industry.

Embracing the Role of a Labourer:

My first day on site, I was given a sledgehammer in a kitchen and was told to “have at it”. I couldn’t quite believe my ears, I looked at what appeared to me to be a pretty fancy worktop and asked if this was a joke! It wasn’t! It might have been one of the most fun days I have ever had at work! The lads were impressed with the enthusiasm I showed, I did have a fair amount of stress to unload following my job hunt so this was a perfectly suited first task and I realised pretty quickly that the physical side of the work suited me well.

Working as a labourer on a construction site is both physically and mentally demanding. It involves carrying out a range of tasks, including digging trenches, mixing cement, and unloading materials. While it may not sound glamorous, being a labourer taught me the fundamentals of construction work, and how to work efficiently within a team. It was the first time during my career I was able to have the craic with the team; this has been one of the aspects of working in construction that I’ve continued to like best throughout my career.

During this initial phase of my career, I focused on improving my skills and my network and gaining a better understanding of the industry. I made sure to learn as much as I could from the experienced tradespeople around me, and I was always eager to take on new challenges. This first year of my career in construction certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a refreshing change from sitting behind a desk and I learnt a lot more than I had done in an office previously!

Upskilling and Gaining Certifications:

In the UK construction industry, there are countless opportunities to advance your career through upskilling and obtaining relevant certifications. At the time upskilling wasn’t really on my mind and I wish I had been encouraged earlier to engage in all the opportunities that are out there. Most of them are designed to build and test your skills in the trade rather than how well you can write or if you use a comma in the right place. I think that the main barrier to actually doing any of these courses that are offered was not knowing about them. I plan to shed some more light on potential courses you can take and what prospects they offer in a future post so watch this space! Eventually, I was lucky enough to be enrolled by the company I was working for at the time to do an NVQ Level 02, in Concrete Finishing. I thought that was strange as I didn’t work as a concrete finisher, but they said they ‘want [me] to come off the green CSCS card’. Although this wasn’t the ideal course to do, it set me on the way to future courses which not only expanded my skill set but helped me progress in my career.

Some of the Certifications I Pursued:

CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card: This card is essential for anyone who wishes to work on a construction site in the UK. It demonstrates your health and safety knowledge, as well as your competency in your chosen trade. This is a given for anyone who wants to work and progress in the construction industry. Even though a CSCS card is not a legal requirement, and you can work without one, I highly recommend you get one. Almost all construction sites will not let you work without one so not having can be very limiting. So as a first step – get your CSCS card!

NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in Construction: Obtaining an NVQ qualification in a specific trade or profession can open doors to new opportunities and career progression. These qualifications are designed to validate your skills and expertise, ensuring you meet industry standards. The NVQ qualification will be reflected in the colour of your CSCS card, for more senior positions it is usually a requirement to have a certain level of NVQ. So, the sooner you start, the faster you can progress! I also found that your experience is taken into account when doing these courses, this was an excellent surprise! But more on this later.

CPCS (Construction Plant Competence Scheme) or NPORS (National Plant Registration Scheme) card: This certification is required for operating plant machinery on construction sites. I never got a CPCS qualification, but this is a good option for anyone who is interested in operating large machinery.

Advancing to a Skilled Trade:

As I gained more experience, I decided to specialise in a skilled trade. In my case I got the opportunity to work as a cubeman and then an assistant site engineer. This was a crucial step in my career progression, as it enabled me to hone my expertise in a specific area and really progress. Before this I tried my hand at demolition and strip-outs, joinery, plumbing, fabricating and fixing modular steel structures and general labouring which included everything from driving the van to digging foundations.

There are numerous trades to choose from, including bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. The best thing about this, is that you can choose something that you enjoy or find interesting. Construction also allows you to try lots of different things before honing in on what you like. I would say this could be limited by who you know and what you are introduced to, but that is something we are trying to change with Fixed. I found that by focusing on a specific trade, I was able to further develop my skills, take on more complex tasks and become an expert in my field. This isn’t the only option though as depending on the path you take it maybe more beneficial to accrue multiple ‘tickets’ in various areas so you can make yourself as employable as possible. For example, if you’re a 360 excavator, it might be worth getting the ticket to drive an ADT or a Dumper as well so you can be even more valuable to the companies you work with. This will also open up a larger number of opportunities for work and will allow you to pick the jobs that you want to do.

Climbing the Ladder to Management:

With years of experience under my belt and a solid foundation in a skilled trade, I began to set my sights on management roles within the industry. To prepare myself for this transition, I enrolled in various management courses and sought out mentorship from experienced industry leaders in my field and within the company I worked for.

Some of the courses and choices I made to prepare for management roles included:

Site Supervisor Safety Training Scheme (SSSTS) followed but the Site Management Safety Training Scheme (SMSTS): These courses are designed for site managers and supervisors, and covers essential topics such as health and safety, risk assessments, and effective communication.

Temporary Works Supervisor (TWS) followed by Temporary Work Co-ordinator (TWC): These qualifications are beneficial for a variety of roles in the UK construction industry, including site managers, engineers, foremen and safety managers. They are designed to ensure that temporary works, such as scaffolding and formwork, are designed, installed, and maintained in a safe and effective manner. Having these qualifications not only demonstrates a commitment to safety, but also enhances career opportunities and professional credibility in the industry.

Project Management: I specifically requested a new role to learn about the pre-construction phase of a large RC (reinforced concrete) project. I decided that I would rather have the experience in a new role rather than a large pay rise for working in the same role for the year. This in retrospect was an excellent decision; it allowed me to learn the fundamentals of project management and to better understand how to plan, execute, and control construction projects. I think the take home message from this is, that sometimes you have to look more at the long-term gains rather than the short-term ones and that sometimes taking a step back and assessing if the quick wins in this industry are too good to be true.

Pursuing further upskilling opportunities:

At this point in my career, I still did not have a relevant internationally recognised qualification to tell the world – hey I’m an engineer. I felt this would hold me back if I was for example, to want to work abroad. Despite the years of experience I had and the skills that I had learnt, there was no proof, to someone looking in, that I was what I said I was. (This is another factor that we are working hard to change at Fixed, by building digital profiles for our workers.) At this point my qualification was an NVQ Level 02 in Concrete Finishing, not exactly portraying accurately what I have been doing for the last 5 years. The beauty with NVQ qualifications as I touched upon earlier is that they take into account experience. This allowed me jump straight to an NVQ Level 04 in Construction Site Supervision.. I got that qualification alongside working. It was super straight forward, sent over some documents, a couple of videos showing me working and that was that. Now I had a gold CSCS card, woo. The whole process took a bit over a month and was sorted. After I got this qualification, I was promoted to a Senior Engineer, where I was then tasked with managing a whole section of the project, but I didn’t want to stop there. My next goal was to get an NVQ Level 06 which would give me the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering! I was actually in the process of getting it before I decided to leave to work on Fixed full time. This experience really showed me the true potential of a career in construction and opportunities that are out there, no matter what your background is.

Continuous Learning and Professional Development:

In the ever-evolving world of construction, it is essential to stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends, technologies, and best practices. As a co-founder of a new business, I am committed to continuous learning and professional development. This includes attending industry conferences such as the digital construction week and London construction week, to build my network and stay informed about the latest research and innovations in the field.

The Rewards of a Career in Construction:

Looking back on my journey from a labourer to a senior engineer to co-founding my own business, I can confidently say that the construction industry has provided me with a wealth of opportunities for personal and professional growth. The hands-on experience I gained as a labourer, combined with my specialized skills in a trade and my management experience, have all contributed to my fantastic career as an engineer; and I am extremely thankful to have had this experience in the construction industry which gave me the knowledge and confidence that made it possible to start Fixed.

Conclusion:

For anyone considering a career in construction, my advice is simple: embrace every opportunity to learn and grow, as opposed to seeking short-term wins; be proactive in seeking out certifications and qualifications, and above all, be prepared to work hard. The construction industry is an exciting and challenging environment, and with dedication, perseverance, and the right attitude, anyone can forge a successful and fulfilling career in this field.

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