"If you’re a good surveyor, you never stop learning. And you never want to."

Steve McMillan MRICS

How this surveying firm overcame its hiring dilemma.

Cooper & Hall looks for quantity surveyors who have taken a road less-travelled when it comes to career paths. Meet the Yorkshire-based SME that counts a former primary school teacher among its surveyors.

Steve McMillan is Cooper & Hall’s Regional Manager. He champions the diversity of his team: “It’s about attracting the right people with the right passion and providing them with the best training,” he says.

“We support people through their APC and then with CPD. Here, people don’t just pass their APC and sit in a corner, shuffling paper around. We’re committed to continuous great-quality learning and opportunities so that everyone has the chance to build a successful career with us.”

A team that pitches in together

So, what qualities does he look for in a new recruit? Steve believes it’s about finding people that fit his company perfectly – its client base and its culture. “We’re absolutely focused on the details here,” he says. “A purely academic route might be great if you’re heading for a huge construction company where you’re just not as close to the sharp end as we are. We’re a team that loves surveying, so that’s the calibre of person we want to attract.”

The balance has to be right, however. We have surveyors who are on day release to complete their Bachelors or Masters, while spending the rest of their week engaged in the sleeves-up business of quantity surveying projects. “People can leave university and not know how a building actually fits together,” Steve says. “That doesn’t happen here.”

Training, Cooper & Hall-style, is all about giving people solid, practical knowledge, while keeping them updated on changes to measuring, bills of quantities and contracts or, as Steve says: “the stuff that really matters.”

Why this hiring approach works

  • On-the-job training allows you to recruit for passion, not just qualifications.
  • A focused regime that fits your surveyors to your business needs.
  • It fosters a team-wide culture of mutual support.
  • Constantly encourages long-standing staff to keep learning and growing.

Steve's team share their experiences

Tom Hornsey

Senior Quantity Surveyor

“I’ve been with Cooper & Hall for 9 years. I recently decided to become chartered, so I’m currently halfway through my APC. The courses I’ve been on have allowed me to continually develop over that time. It’s clear the company believes that the best way it can grow is by focusing on its people. On-the-job training and CPD courses mean that we’re always focused on learning the skills we need in the real world.”

Richard Wilcock

Quantity Surveyor

“I’ve been here for just over four years and started the APC process in January after I finished my BSc in Newcastle. I’ve got a live PQS project under way and Steve’s helping me with my diaries. I get a lot of help from RICS’ CPD courses – covering everything from construction law to contracts, and measurements to dispute resolution.”

The recruitment quandary

It’s a culture that grew from necessity, rather than any hammered-out strategy in the boardroom. “We’d always had problems with recruiting,” Steve admits. “Historically, SMEs (small and medium-size enterprises) didn’t seem as glamorous or as exciting as the big boys. We focused on what we could offer – the chance to get quickly embedded in the nuts and bolts of it all.”

It didn’t matter if the recruit hadn’t come in from a traditional route either. “With the right training courses, we can attract people mid-career, looking for a new start,” Steve says, such as the primary school teacher in his 30s who Steve has recently employed.

“He didn’t really know what quantity surveying was all about. We brought him in for a couple of weeks. He loved it. We could see his passion and determination to succeed, so it was an easy decision for us.”

Conversely, Steve reveals the last person they hired straight from university lasted three weeks. And agencies? “No, they just don’t work for us. It’s not about picking surveyors off the peg. We’re a team.”

The vast majority of staff stay far longer than three weeks. In the past five years, Cooper & Hall has only lost two team members. In the past 10 years, that team has grown from 9 to 19.

Taking advantage of variety

“The RICS courses we offer our staff are intensely practical,”Steve says. “And as they set the best practice rules and guidelines, who better to train from?”

Why Cooper & Hall recommends RICS training

  • All of RICS’ courses are designed to be relevant to industry.
  • RICS’ CPD courses keep us up to date with the very latest industry developments and law.
  • We can choose from a wide range of topics – regardless of what stage the members of our team are at in their career.

“That’s why RICS’ courses work,” Steve says, adding that he’s personally devoted time to RICS’ array of CPD opportunities, as well as recommending slideshows, and online and distance-learning packages and seminars for his trainees. “If you’re a good surveyor, you never stop learning. And you never want to,” he says.

Taking on a counsellor role

Steve’s just completed RICS training himself to better support candidates as a counsellor through their APC training. This is a more senior role than the mandatory supervisor position that every company with APC trainees has to have.

Although Steve has completed the qualification himself, the APC Supervisor and Counsellor course gave him a valuable chance to explore the APC from an entirely new perspective. “For example, I learned that candidates should aim for 58-68 hours of CPD per year (rather than the compulsory 48), in case any of the hours are discounted,” he says. The course helped Steve instil into his trainees just how much time they need to devote to prepping for that career-defining moment.

Currently, Steve is helping four of his colleagues progress towards their APC Final Assessment: “I give people a hard time, quizzing them regularly,” he laughs. “But a colleague who recently passed was asked exactly the same questions I tested him on, so I must be doing something right.”

Future plans

The word is clearly getting out. Over the next few months, Cooper & Hall expects four members of its team to enrol on the APC. “We get the most out of people by encouraging them to develop, which then gives them the motivation to work for us. We push people to be the best they can be. And that can’t harm us, either.”

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