Claire Burns is an assistant construction manager at Mace, where she is currently working on the Tottenham Hotspur FC stadium redevelopment. Prior to this Claire worked on the Tate Modern extension, where she was responsible for managing the external façade, scaffold, cladding and blockwork. Claire also worked on the British Museum New Exhibition Centre assisting the fit out works. Claire has an Honours degree in Accountancy & Finance from Liverpool John Moores University, as well as a BTEC Diploma in Art & Design. Claire originally joined Mace as a financial accountant before transitioning into construction management.
“…I think if I’d had someone tell me about the construction industry when I was in school I would have considered it back then, but I was oblivious. Now I actually get girls contacting me and asking me how to go about getting into the industry…”
My career to date and what made me want to get into construction
Well, I guess my career path would seem a varied one to say the least.
To be honest, when I was younger I never really could give a definitive answer when I was asked which resulted in studying and completing several different courses. I moved from Belfast to Liverpool and started at university on a Product Design & Digital Modelling course. I soon learnt that I was very particular when it came to my art, detail being key, that it was too personal, and a piece wasn’t finished until I was happy – which could take a very long time!
I looked at my logical way of thinking and decided I would do a degree in Accountancy & Finance – this would be a great money maker and I could live comfortably. I graduated and began working in the financial world. When I got my first job after graduating I remember thinking: “Is this it?!?!” This was all around the recession time of 2008 and I was made redundant several times. Each new accountancy role I was in I thought the same thing. In an attempt to give it one last chance in a completely different city / life, I made the decision to leave Liverpool and head down to London.
Time for a new sector followed by a new role
Here I secured a maternity contract within finance at Mace. I’d not worked in the construction industry before this. I soon settled into the company but my gut instinct was telling me my role was not the right one but the sector was.
People got to know me, how I work, how I interact with people, so when I made some noise and knocked on a few doors to inquire about other areas I could fit in, construction management was one of the options. I looked into it and it seemed to tick all the boxes. I wasn’t going to waste my time or anyone else’s time chopping and changing jobs, so I felt I needed site experience.
A move into construction management
A construction director agreed to give me the work experience I wanted on the new British Museum Exhibition Centre. What was meant to be for three weeks ended up being a couple of months and I knew then this is definitely the career for me. I had to earn money though, so with my new site experience, I manoeuvred into a commercial role until trainee construction manager role became available and I landed at the Tate Modern working on the new extension – and I loved every minute of it.
Obviously with a technical gap in my knowledge / experience I have been on several courses to get to where I need to be. Every day is a school day no matter what level / grade your position is. Construction is a creative industry; there’s so much need to work to detail and you have to be logical and practical. No day is the same. It’s such an interactive role with people from all walks of life – it was exactly what I was looking for. The leap of a career change was the best thing I have ever done.
My role on a day to day basis
On a day to day basis my role firstly involves very early starts. We have a team meeting every morning at 7.30am. We get briefed on any issues or critical work that needs to be looked at and we pass on information of work / events that’s coming up. Then it’s on to site. My role is to manage all construction work on site. I need to make sure that work that has been planned is underway and is being carried out safely and supervised.
From all the plans / programmes / drawings and meetings I attend I need to be looking ahead at what’s coming next, and communicating any issues / concerns that might hinder the progress. If there are any, the sooner it’s dealt with the less impact it should have on the development of the works. It means keeping a constant line of communication with operatives, supervisors and management from the trade contractors as well as client, designers, engineers and the Mace team.
I could be inspecting some of the completed work with the engineers prior to a concrete pour, arranging for a survey to be carried out to plot piles or presenting site-wide safety ‘Tool Box Talks’ to over 400 workers. No day is the same.
Making use of my finance and accountancy background
I used to resent having a finance and accountancy degree, because I felt stuck. Mind you, it has helped me appreciate the commercial aspect of construction. The monetary value is obviously a key element of most construction jobs and can sway many decisions.
The quantitative and qualitative value is also important. My degree gave me that understanding. That can help when it comes to, for example, estimating levels of concrete per cubic metre that needs to be ordered. Or the correct size of duct or containment needed to protect an electrical cable. Another useful skill: I used to have to keep excel spreadsheets, detailing everything right down to the last penny. That level of record keeping has now helped me to keep a detailed track of daily activities out on site.
Projects keeping me busy and motivated
It’s hard to say which project I’ve most enjoyed working on because each project has been magic because there have been brilliant people working on them. The people really do make it enjoyable. The British Museum was my taster into the construction management world and had a great bunch involved in that – some of them I’m still in touch with.
The Tottenham Hotspur FC (THFC) project is ongoing and I am enjoying it despite it being very pressured and tough at times. I have two great construction directors and an amazing senior construction manager who are keeping my busy and motivated. I am getting some serious exposure and experience that I never expected to get so soon and this will obviously help with my development. This project has some characters on this job! We are doing 12 hour days here sometimes and it’s important to all get on and be able to have the craic. We do! I love them all!
But I think I have to say the Tate Modern was what I enjoyed most. It was my step into my new career and my first construction manager role, a choice I will never regret or forget. The team there was cracking! And the construction director at the British Museum who gave me my start; everyone who is lucky to work with him will be part of a great project.
The rest of the people – the Mace team, the trade contractors all pulled together to get it over the line. And I have some brilliant memories and friendships that came out of it. The job itself is amazing. I feel delighted to have been a part of it and love seeing how well it turned out. To think I was involved in it, that’s class!
How Mace is championing women in a male dominated profession
The industry does have a problem and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. However more and more women are coming into the industry and that’s good to see.
Mace has recognised the gap and are working to help those who are wanting to work in the profession. We’ve got more women coming into the business at all levels and through our apprenticeship, trainee and graduate schemes, and half of them are women. These programmes will train them in varying roles – design, planning, commercial as well as construction – it’s not just bricks and mortar.
I know it’s across Mace that this drive is happening. Certainly here on our project we are involved with the community, talking to schools and colleges in a way to promote the construction industry to both male and females.
I think if I’d had someone tell me about the construction industry when I was in school I would have considered it back then, but I was oblivious. Now I actually get girls contacting me and asking me how to go about getting into the industry. It’s important to offer advice and development to those that want it and are keen, and Mace are doing that.
A diverse team contributes to better problem solving
Everyone has their story. Everyone has a different background. A different way of thinking. When a problem arises, sometimes it’s someone in a senior position that may make the decision, but not every time.
A problem comes up and it affects different parts of the project and then every opinion counts. It might lead to a debate but then hopefully all concerns are aired and the best solution is found. The more diversity gives a better approach handling issues. A team of ‘yes men’ won’t necessarily resolve a problem. A diverse team encourages a healthy debate and discussion. Communication is the main way to solve any problem.
Advice for women and girls who’d like to know more about construction careers
My advice would be: Don’t shy away! If they have an interest in construction then look into it! There are so many roles within the construction industry available that they are bound to find one that matches their skills and interests.
It isn’t just about being out on site and if they don’t want to be laying bricks they don’t have to be. It is an old stereotype that could be still influencing girls. I can tell them that’s a wrong impression. On the other hand if they do what to be a bricklayer or electrician, then why not?! They are more than capable to do it if they can put their mind to it.
The main thing I would say is to follow their instincts! If there is something that interests them, read up about it. Get work experience. That makes all the difference. It gives a taster of what the role is like and if it is right for you.
Coming up next for me and Mace
I plan to stay on the THFC project and see it through. It’s a massive learning curve since I’ve got to see it come out of the ground. It will cover areas that I have not worked on before, which can only be a good thing.
I also want to complete my technical training. I have been lined up to do some courses and I want to get them under my belt and also go for my NVQ Level 6, which Mace is putting me forward for. For me this leads to step up a grade to construction manager. That’s my main focus and taking one step at a time.
Mace is involved in so many projects and no doubt that will carry on. If I can get to progress and experience more, then happy days!