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What to expect at a construction graduate job assessment centre

Allan Ruddy

Hoping to get into the grad program of a construction industry employer? You might find yourself being road tested at an assessment centre. Here’s some advice on how to prepare.

Let’s say you’re a construction industry employer with lots of applicants for a handful of grad positions. None of your prospective employees has much industry experience. All of them have similar degrees in, say, civil and structural engineering or construction management. How are you going to get an idea which of the applicants can think on their feet, work well with others, communicate and get things done? By simulating a work environment at an assessment centre and having them complete a variety of tasks, tests and interviews.  

The venue

The assessment centre will usually be your potential employer’s headquarters or sometimes a conference centre they’ve hired. Over the course of the day, you may find yourself anywhere from large conference rooms with lots of other people, to one-on-ones with an interviewer in a cramped office, to breaking bread in the executive dining room.

How your mettle will be tested

The exact details will vary depending on the assessment centre, company and role in question. But if you’re asked to front up to an assessment you can expect any or all of the following:

  • An icebreaker exercise
  • The opportunity to interact with the company’s staff, possibly including those already in the grad program. Typically, this happens over lunch   
  • A group exercise
  • An individual presentation
  • A case study or scenario to be worked through either in a group or individually
  • An interview with one of the company’s managers
  • Aptitude and psychometric tests
  • Written exercises

General preparation

Much of the preparation for taking in part in an assessment is similar to that for preparing for a job interview. In fact, an interview is almost always part of an assessment, as we’ll get to shortly.

This means you should research your potential employer, specifically the types of projects it undertakes and the values it champions. If you’re applying to work at a company that builds bridges and promotes teamwork, for example, it shouldn’t come as a surprise on assessment day if you’re expected to engage in bridge-building and teamwork-testing exercises.

Before the assessment, review your CV and academic transcript. Be ready to discuss any aspect of them, particularly any aspect your potential employer might have an interest in (such as bridge building and working in teams, to take the above example). If you know people who’ve graduated before you and gone through assessments, it can be valuable to see if they have any tips.

Nailing different parts of the assessment

Icebreaker exercises/group lunches/unstructured socialising  

You know what they say about free lunches? It applies double with assessment days. Whether it's having to play charades at the start of the day, or make conversation over sandwiches with senior executives, or just mingle during a coffee break, it’s safe to assume someone, somewhere is keeping an eye on your ‘soft skills’. So, make an extra effort to be friendly, enthusiastic and chatty. But avoid monopolising conversations or boasting about yourself.     

Group exercises

These can feel awkward, especially given everyone is aware their contributions are being monitored. Nonetheless, you need to pretend you’re actually on the job and working as part of a team to achieve a goal. It’s difficult to fake emotional intelligence but do whatever you can to demonstrate you can work well with others. Participate fully yourself, encourage others to contribute and give and receive feedback in a respectful manner.  

Case studies  

A scenario or case study involves a group, or more rarely an individual, working on a technical or construction-related issue and devising solutions or recommendations. In this situation, your problem-solving skills and ability to make decisions under time pressure are being evaluated. These aren’t competencies that can be suddenly developed in the days leading up to an assessment but it’s best to be as proactive as possible. If possible, get the ball rolling by asking something like, “What’s the smartest way to approach this?” then continue to offer ideas, and help refine the proposals of others, until a solution or set of recommendations is agreed on.

Individual presentations

These can take several forms. After taking part in the case study, you may be asked to present the solutions or recommendations your group came up with to the assessors, who will play the role of the firm’s clients. Alternatively, you may be given a topic before the assessment and told to prepare, for example, a ten-minute talk on a construction project you find inspiring.

While you’ll be expected to be across the technical details, the point of the presentation is to demonstrate you’re capable of communicating ideas to others and, ideally, getting them enthused about whatever it is you’re proposing. If you don't have a lot of experience giving presentations – or even if you do – it’s a good idea to do as much rehearsing, ideally in front of an audience of friends or family who can provide feedback, as possible.  

Interview with a senior manager

All the standard advice about sitting construction industry job interviews applies here. That noted, by the time you’ve made it to an assessment you already will have provided answers to many of the boilerplate questions. Your interviewer – who may well have the responsibility of supervising you if you are hired – will be attempting to determine whether you have both the technical skills and character to succeed. So, expect to have to answer some questions in depth about your studies, skill set and temperament.

Psychometric and aptitude tests

It’s difficult and inadvisable to try and ‘game’ this type of testing. But if you’re nervous, or just want to get an idea of what you’re in for, you can find plenty of them online, as sites such as this one.      

Written exercises

If you’re pursuing a career in construction, you’re likely more of the STEM than humanities type. However, you’ll be expected to communicate in a professional manner with co-workers, managers and clients. Your potential employer will want evidence you have some grasp of spelling and grammar. If you’re not sure when to use your or you’re, or whether yours is meant to have an apostrophe in it, make sure you brush up on your English language skills before the big day.