Wind back to the start of 2018 and demand for architects, builders, engineers and other construction professionals was running hot.

At 1.197 million (seasonally adjusted), the number of people employed in the construction industry throughout Australia in February 2018 (ABS data) was at a record high. During early and mid-2018, vacancies for architects and construction managers stood at levels not exceeded since before the Global Financial Crisis. Vacancies for civil engineers were at their highest level since the peak of the mining boom.

All this was being driven by record home building activity along with government investment in new roads. Dwelling commencement levels were running at a whopping 235,000 per year or thereabouts.

Now, conditions have cooled – though demand remains elevated by historic levels. Overall seasonally adjusted construction employment levels have eased back to 1.176 million as at August (still an elevate level). By June next year, Australian Construction Industry Forum expects these to be back at 1.170 million. Over the twelve months to October, vacancies for construction managers, architects/landscape architects and civil engineers fell from 4,389, 833 and 2,239 to 3,692, 604 and 1,900 respectively. Interior designer vacancies fell by more than half from 480 to 222.

For AEC professionals, this raises questions about the roles which will be in demand in 2020 and strategies they can employ to maximise their career success in the new year.

Austin Blackburne, Regional Director of Hays Construction, says demand overall will remain constant as softer residential conditions are offset by ongoing demand on public infrastructure projects and vacancy activity in commercial building.

In civil construction, Blackburne says there is a shortage of suitable candidates in some areas and a mismatch between skills desired by employers and those possessed by candidates – a phenomenon he says is frustrating for both parties.

Even in residential, a reasonable volume of work remains notwithstanding that activity levels have eased.

“Yes, residential construction has declined compared to one year ago, although given population growth and low unemployment we will still see some home building activity and therefore jobs,” Blackburne said, in a written response to questions.

“While the market is being influenced by residential building, commercial, infrastructure, health, aged care and defence projects are unpinning ongoing demand for skilled AEC professionals.”

Matthew Sampson, Managing Director of Melbourne based recruitment firm Aspect Personnel, says demand for talent in the new year will be concentrated around specific areas.

Speaking from a Victorian perspective, Sampson says the volume of work twelve to eighteen months ago was such that demand for senior and intermediate people was universal across almost all areas and firms were challenged not just in recruitment but also retaining existing staff.

Now, demand hotspots are more concentrated around specific disciplines.

More generally, Sampson says greater caution in hiring is being driven by margin pressures along with uncertainty in the macro economy.

“Perhaps twelve or eighteen months ago, there was almost universal demand for intermediate and senior professionals anywhere from town planning to architecture to engineering and construction,” Sampson said.

“The volume of workload was such that realistically, additional staff were required in order to deliver that work.

“We have since seen a concentration of where the real talent shortage lies. Demand has concentrated a little bit and is less universal. There is less consistency around where that demand lies.

“We’ve also seen a settling of candidates as well. So candidates are becoming a little less bullish about moving in light of a little less confidence and surety about being able to land their next job with minimal risk.”

According to Sampson, demand hotspots for 2020 are likely in several areas.

At a technical level, practitioners with rail experience are needed amid significant public investment in rail infrastructure. This includes rail architects, rail design engineers and rail construction professionals.

Demand will also be strong for those who can design and deliver institutional buildings such as hospitals and schools.

Finally, Sampson says prices and development activity in real-estate are ‘flicking up’ – especially in detached housing.

At the moment, Sampson talks of a lift in demand for town planners – often a precursor to greater need for architects and engineers in residential building.

Outside of technical roles, Sampson describes a need for candidates with business development expertise who can expand firms’ client bases. This could be either those with experience in business development roles or technical professionals with established clients and relationships.

Finally, as principals and other senior personnel retire, Sampson talks of demand for candidates who can participate in succession planning. This could be those taking over the management of firms or associates coming in at the next level as existing staff move into management roles.

Sampson says there are several strategies which candidates can employ to optimise their outcomes.

First, it is important to be clear about your 1-3 year objectives.

Next, it is useful to speak to current employers and explore possibilities for these objectives to be achieved through existing employment.

On this score, Sampson cautions against making and accepting counter-offers. These, he says, tend to be ‘band-aid’ solutions made by employers under duress and often involve promises which employers are later unable to honour. From an employer perspective, Sampson says a significant portion of candidates who accept counter-offers nonetheless wind up leaving within six months.

Instead, candidates wanting pay rises or career progression should discuss this with their employer without fear of resignation.

Next, networking both within and outside your current organisation is important. This can be done by joining associations, attending events or meeting with others in your industry.

Finally, it is important to speak to recruiters and gain an informed appraisal of current opportunities. Sampson says this is best done early as candidates who call and simply ask for a market overview are more likely to get an objective appraisal compared with those who indicate their desire to switch roles immediately.\

Blackburne, meanwhile, talks of three areas.

First, it is important to upskill. For architects, Revit skills are sought and an ability to demonstrate these will stand you in good stead – as will 12D software knowledge in engineering.

Soft skills are also important and candidates should seek to develop their abilities in areas such as communication, problem solving and stakeholder management. Opportunities to utilise these skills in current roles should be maximised. Webinars and professional literature can also provide useful information.

Finally, interview skills are crucial. This includes wearing suitable and appropriate clothing, having phones off or on silent, arriving in comfortable time, refraining from smoking before (and during) the interview, being well-prepared to respond to questions and maintaining eye contact with all interviewers even where only one is asking questions.

When asked to demonstrate their qualities or value, candidates should draw upon real life experience. A useful framework is the STAR technique (Situation/Task/Action/Result). Using this, candidates can talk about the situation they were in, what they were required to do, the action they took and outcomes which resulted. Faced with a colleague who was struggling with performance (Situation), for example, candidates can mention how they sat down with the person (Task), shared examples about how they themselves had addressed similar challenges with their own performance (Action) and how their colleague’s performance subsequently improved (Result).

On roles in demand, Blackburne says condensing these to just a few is challenging.

Nevertheless, he nominates the following:

  • Estimators are difficult roles to fill in the current market as many entrants aspire to become project managers and there are few career estimators notwithstanding the need for this function.
  • Qualified Civil Engineers with exposure to infrastructure projects are in huge demand in response to the rollout of projects. Senior accredited Civil Engineers are required as well to oversee project design and sign off.
  • Contract Administrators with at least five years’ experience in civil or commercial construction are in demand amid a solid pipeline of projects and a narrowing of experienced candidates for existing roles amid typical movement of CA’s into project management roles.
  • Since the repetitive nature of their work mean that their role is commonly a stepping-stone to more senior positions, Revit Technicians are frequently needing to be replaced. Whilst employers prefer locals who have experience on similar projects, there is a shortage of such people.
  • Experienced Site Managers who can work on infrastructure, hotel, apartment, large-scale shopping centre and mixed-use building projects are in short supply.