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News Go Behind The Scenes At The Catalyst Project With Our Latest Graduate Work Placements

Staffordshire University Graduates partner with VINCI Construction UK for four week work placement opportunity at The Catalyst project

Staffordshire University Graduate placements James Dempster and Will Mclauchlan pictured at The Catalyst project
Image: Staffordshire University Graduate placements James Dempster and Will Mclauchlan pictured at The Catalyst project

I've enjoyed it all really, just getting a general feel for not only what construction is like but also how businesses in general run and the sort of things I can expect when I go into the workplace full time, which is invaluable experience.

James Dempster, BSc (Hons) Psychology and MSc Health Psychology Graduate from Staffordshire University

Back in April 2021 we shared the stories of Dylan Foster and George Lewis – our first two placement students who had the unique opportunity to spend a month working on The Catalyst project with VINCI Construction UK.

This month we caught up with James Dempster, a BSc (Hons) Psychology graduate and MSc Health Psychology graduate and Will McLauchlan, a BSc (Hons) Geography graduate to find out more about their experiences of working on The Catalyst building.

What made you decide to apply for the work placement opportunity at The Catalyst?

James: For me it was mainly because I’m going down the analysis route of psychology and a lot of places I’ve been applying for require business experience, as well as knowledge of project management and general commercial management which were two key elements of the placement.

Will: I wanted to get into planning. I did a few modules on that in my Geography degree so as part of this internship we’ve spent a week in the planning and design section.

You’re both on month-long placements on The Catalyst project. Can you tell us more about what each week has covered? Have you focused on just one aspect of construction or have you had the chance to experience different areas of the project?

James: The placement has been split. The first two weeks were site management and then engineering. The first week was mainly site management with a small part being engineering and the second week was a bit more of engineering with slightly less site management. Also interlaced with that was a bit of project management as well. We also got to observe how the Site Management and Planning Teams manage their contractors. Furthermore, last week I worked with the commercial management team and this week with the planning and design team. Will was slightly different the last couple of weeks…

Will: I did planning and design last week and this week I’m doing commercial management.

James: For commercial management, the week was based around effectively managing the various sub-contractors that VINCI employs but obviously as we don’t have specific training in that, we’ve been shadowing the Quantity Surveyor and shadowing in meetings with sub-contractors – specifically the management side of that – as well as actually double checking the quantities and making sure that the right things are being ordered at the right times.

Will: When I did the planning and design week a lot of that was going through meetings as there have been quite a few changes to the building plan so it’s all about how you overcome certain challenges that have come up as a result of the changes and changing the design.

James: This week, whilst working with the planning and design team, one of the big things we were looking into was tile colours. It might not sound that exciting but obviously if it doesn’t quite match with the colour scheme of the building then it would stand out, so we went over that and made sure they were happy with everything.

James: For me they have tailored the placement to my career aspirations especially in the commercial management week. I mentioned before that I’ll be using skills from the analysis side of psychology so the tasks I was given were tailored to be more analysis focused, so for example data entry and excel spreadsheet creation, which I’ve done a lot of already - with the analysis side of psychology - but it’ll be what I’ll be doing a lot more of when I get into full time work so it’s been useful.

Will: We’ve been shadowing what they do as a job, but I think they’ve tailored it and said, “If you’re doing our job, these are the bits that would tie in with geography, so you’d probably specialise in this aspect a bit more.”

What does a typical day working on The Catalyst project look like?

Will: We normally get in at 8am in the morning and check the emails or finish off what we were doing the day before. Then a member of the VINCI team we’re working with would give us a new task for the day. Yesterday I was measuring the areas for all the different types of landscaping types outside of the building, just so we can check the pricing is right and that the amount of everything being ordered is right so we can pass that on to the sub-contractor and get to work.

James: Yesterday I was in two meetings. One was to do with the external work of the building and when work is going to start on the retaining wall and a few other aspects. The other meeting was about the internals and how it will all match up and if there were any changes or problems that were faced and how the team would overcome that. The tiles I mentioned involved going onto site and checking with the sub-contractors that they were appropriate and feeding that back to the people that are going to lay the tiles.

What surprised you the most about working on The Catalyst project that you didn’t know before setting foot on the site?

Will: I think the main thing that surprised me is not necessarily to do with the job, but to do with the actual construction industry and how many different sections there are to it. I think I was a bit naive going into it thinking they plan it and build it basically. I didn’t think about that there is the pricing, you’ve got to make sure everything is going on schedule and everything like that.

James: In a similar sense to Will I expected there to be lots of different sectors and different things going on, but I didn’t expect there to be as many divisions as there are which have to all coordinate and make sure they’re working together. I suppose in relation to The Catalyst build, what surprised me was, first of all how fast it has all been put together since we’ve been on site but also how well coordinated inside it is and all the different safety features that are there and all the designated walkways - which we’ve both had a hand in designing as well as making sure they’re matched up and that the site is safe.

What are your biggest highlights of working on The Catalyst?

Will: I think just seeing how far it has come since we started. We’ve only been here a month but its changed a lot since we first came in the building. I particularly enjoyed the engineering side which I didn’t think would be my thing initially.

James: Similar things to Will in that sense, there’s been quite a lot that we’ve done. I’ve enjoyed it all really, just getting a general feel for not only what construction is like but also how businesses in general run and the sort of things I can expect when I go into the workplace full time, which is invaluable experience really.

Will: I enjoyed the planning and have actually got an interview for a planning role in the construction sector, so I’ll definitely be using the experience gained if I get the role.

James: I was speaking to the Head of the Commercial Management team here and he says that there are analysis-based jobs within Construction and especially within VINCI itself, so obviously having had the experience here it would be a great opportunity. Not only that, it’s also great experience to put on my CV. Most of the places I’ve been applying for require some kind of experience of how the business environment works, so it’s all valuable experience for that.

What has it been like working with the team from VINCI? Did the team at VINCI give you any advice when you first started or any words of wisdom from their career experience?

Will: They’ve been really helpful. The main thing that they’ve told us is to basically try every opportunity you’ve got as it could turn out that you really enjoy it like I enjoyed the engineering and I didn’t think I would but I wouldn’t have known I would enjoy it if I hadn’t tried it in the first place.

James: They made a point of saying that it’s important not to judge it on face value but to actually see it and to have a go and see what construction is all about. It probably surprised us to learn of the number of opportunities that there are within construction. More generally, they advised us to push ourselves and to do what we can to get the best out of whatever situation we’re in.

Do you have any advice or tips for other students who are looking at whether they should do a work placement?

Will: I’d say definitely do one especially at the moment as there are so many graduates that are looking for jobs. I think the placement or internship will make your CV stand out. I think it’s really good experience and you should just go for it.

James: I’d also say that even if the placement opportunity doesn’t seem like it’s perhaps within the area you want to go into, don’t write it off straight away. Do a bit more research and find out if it is applicable to what you want to do and if it will actually help you to achieve your end goals as it were. Surprisingly sometimes even the things that don’t seem like they would be any use at all are actually very useful. It can actually be tailored as part of your CV to show that you’ve got valuable experience within a particular sector.

If people are a bit unsure or nervous, it’s important to try and push yourself a little outside of your comfort zone because if you do take some risks, you can reap great rewards.


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