Quantity Surveying: private practice versus contractor – could the grass be greener?  This was the question that kicked off our debate last month when, together with RICS Matrics and CIOB Novus, we gathered a room full of quantity surveyors, who work across the industry, to discuss the differences and similarities in their roles.

After a great deal of discussion and debate (and some disagreement from both sides of the fence!), we can conclude that it’s less about the colour of the grass and more about navigating the jungle that leads you to the role which satisfies your own career goals.

The panel of experts

Our panel of five industry experts was insightfully chaired by a man with a unique understanding of quantity surveying from a contractor, private practice AND client perspectives; Michael McBrearty, Chief Executive of hub South West Scotland.

Joining him in healthy debate were: David McLeish, Robertson Group’s Estimating Director who spent 12 years in private practice quantity surveying before moving to the contractor side; Kirsten Leslie, Associate Director who has been with private quantity surveying practice nbm Construction Cost Consultants for a decade; John Fisher, Balfour Beatty’s Commercial Manager, who has a wealth of knowledge on both the contractor and client-organisation side and who also addressed the debate’s key question in his university dissertation; Sharon Bateman, who shared her views as Senior Cost Manager with Turner & Townsend having moved to private practice in 2011, after starting her career on the project side of the fence. The panel was completed by Regional Director at Faithful+Gould, Stewart Ferguson, who has been in private practice since qualifying as a QS.

Traditional ties

We discovered that the difference between private practice and contractor quantity surveying is not simply about one title with two different roles, but a whole range of influencing factors which make the positions similar, yet distinctly different.

Traditionally, a QS within a private practice would be involved in a project from inception right through to completion, experiencing the whole spectrum of the project – from interfacing with the client to decide on the brief, through to delivery, and potentially into operation of the project. However, if you were a QS with a contractor, traditionally you would not be as exposed to the client, as you join the project at the delivery stage.

There was some debate around this topic however, as the increase in Design & Build procurement has meant that a contractor is often involved in a project much earlier than previously.

Whilst in practice as a private practice QS, the role is not about making money – it’s about maintaining the client relationship; ultimately both roles are about generating best value – either for your client or in generating profit for your business.

Fighting talk

The focus of the debate turned to the transition between the two roles, with audience interest particularly in David McLeish, when he was asked whether his training in private practice gave him a better grounding for his quantity surveying career compared to peers that had trained in contractor organisations.

His response? – “Absolutely, yes.”  He believes that, for him, the best way to pick up the core skills was as a private practice QS, and then he decided which direction was best for his career. In his current role, some of the key skills and principles, like procurement and producing cost plans, are skills he developed during his private practice years. Stewart Ferguson agreed with this point, highlighting that you gain the best experience in up front client relationship skills with a private practice.

Again this raised some debate with the panel, and in particular John Fisher who believes that the training you receive within a contractor is a great deal more realistic; as it’s a lot tougher to report to your commercial director that you’ve lost money on a job, than it is to report to a client that you’ve gone over on a budget.

The discussions then moved to the quality of training you receive in the two types of organisations and the number of QS’s who become chartered.

It soon became apparent that there is more emphasis within private practice on professional qualifications, with more encouragement and funding provided for QS’s to achieve chartered status than within a contractor. And career progression without chartered status within private practice is perhaps limited.

Our RICS Matrics and CIOB Novus partners listened with interest as the panel debated whether having a professional qualification such as chartered status makes you a better quantity surveyor.

Whilst there was no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, the panel concluded that there is a focus on professional qualifications in private practice as they are investing in their talent, so that they can sell high quality standards to clients –potentially at a higher fee level. The professional status gives the industry a benchmark to measure itself against; however everyone agreed that experience is just as important in developing your career potential.

So in private practice, the company is selling their expertise to clients who like to have an assurance that the firm they’re working with invests in training and their QS’s report to a standard that is maintained and adopted throughout the company. On the other side of the fence, although many contractors will support and on occasions fund professional training, it is not as paramount and perhaps the supposed lack of investment in training contractor QS’s is sacrificed, for a higher starting salary.

Moving to the ‘dark’ side

David may have successfully made the move from PQS to CQS, but could a director on the contracting side do likewise going into private practice?

The panel believed the challenge would be in demonstrating you’ve been involved in the early stages of a project and have the skills and understanding to, for example, independently check bills of quantities when you may have had limited experience in their production during your contractor career. On the whole, the panel thought it may perhaps be more of a challenge for an individual to move from a contractor to private practice at a senior level, however it wouldn’t necessarily be impossible!

Battle to hire the best

Whilst the panel were under the impression that graduate numbers from QS courses are dwindling, the audience touted a different view. What everyone agreed on though is, that as students generally have their graduate jobs lined up from third year, opportunities are abundant, and firms are having to work harder to get the best talent. One audience member commented that in his current market experience employers are really selling themselves to candidates and there are lots of choices in the job market. The panel agreed that the battle for talent, on either side of the fence, is fierce and is likely to increase with time.

Technology: The end of the QS as we know it?

The panel were asked what impact the adoption of technology, such as BIM, is having, or will have, within the profession and how it will define the role of a contractor QS or PQS, individually.

Generally it was felt that private practice QS’s have yet to fully embrace the likes of BIM, but contractors have had to implement it as part of their project team involvement. The panel believed that technology will not replace the role of a QS, but that the manner in which information is obtained and disseminated will be affected. It was agreed that BIM is a huge opportunity for the industry to improve productivity, profitability, and efficiencies – ultimately raising industry standards: building better buildings by creating enhanced asset data, so clients can maintain and own their buildings better.

Panel members highlighted that BIM efficiencies are currently hard to realise, due to the cost of implementing BIM into an organisation. Many private practice clients still want to participate in workshops and do not, as yet, see the long-term benefits in the technology. In reality the panel commented that few clients are currently able to take a BIM model and use it post-completion to run their building. Perhaps therefore that’s the next step-change in the industry – for asset managers and facilities management to be able to use the model to its full extent.

Conclusion

So overall, it was agreed across the discussions that as a ‘building site accountant’, a QS needs to look after the budget, either for their own business or on behalf of their client, to ensure that best value is delivered.

Both roles continue to evolve within an ever-changing business environment and with rising client expectations.

There is a need across the whole industry for greater collaboration, with the role of the contractor QS perhaps developing further, due to earlier project involvement.

As technology is integrated, there is an opportunity for the QS to realise it’s efficiencies and interrogate the models to mitigate and manage risk.

And in relation to professional qualifications – it’s fair to say the jury is most definitely still out on that, however, professional qualifications are important in selling a business and its assets (i.e. its people) to a client; and the more experience you have the better placed you are to deliver best value!

 

Thank you to everyone who came along and participated in making the quantity surveying debate a great event. Special thanks go to Michael McBrearty for chairing the debate and to our panel Stewart Ferguson, Sharon Bateman, John Fisher, Kirsten Leslie and David McLeish for their contributions. Thanks also to RICS Matrics chair Eve Mallon, vice chair, David Robertson and Fraser Duff of CIOB Novus for their support.


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