Be Part of the Change podcast episode 2 – from carpentry to quantity surveying

Posted on: 2 April, 2024

The built environment comprises a diverse and exciting range of sectors, but there is still a lack of representation at every level. We want this to change.

‘Be Part of the Change’ is an awareness campaign with the purpose of celebrating the incredible success stories of our under-represented students, apprentices and alumni, as well as highlighting their challenges.

It’s also an opportunity to highlight the positive practices our employers are actioning within their organisations to inspire other companies in their approach.

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In the second episode of our new Be Part of the Change podcast, Charlotte Thackeray, Outreach and Inclusion Lead at UCEM, is joined by Abel Muvhimi, a MSc student in Quantity Surveying originally from Zimbabwe.

The topics discussed on this episode include:

  • Why Abel is pursuing a career in the built environment
  • The role models that inspired him to enter the industry
  • The challenges Abel has faced in developing his career
  • What the sector needs to do to improve representation

Full transcript

Aysha: Hello, and welcome to the Be Part of the Change podcast. This is UCEM’s new series that will explore the challenges and success stories faced by those from underrepresented backgrounds in the built environment.

Charlotte: Hi, and welcome to the be part of the Change podcast. I’m Charlotte Thackeray, standing in for Umi, Drew, and Ellie today to speak with current UCEM student Abel and Muvhimi this month for Be Part of the Change. We are hearing stories about career changers, and those who, like Abel, have pivoted their career within the built environment.

Hi, Abel. Thank you ever so much for being with us today. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What are you studying with us here at UCEM?

Abel: Okay. My name is Abel Muvhimi. I’m originally from Zimbabwe, and I’m studying a Master’s degree in quantity surveying. And I started, I think, in 2020. And I recently submitted my dissertation. I think I’ve seen the worst of it now!

Charlotte: Fair enough. Congratulations as well on submitting your dissertation. That’s amazing. What inspired you to enter the sector, the built environment, in the first place?

Abel: Well, I don’t think there’s a straight answer to that one, but I think I entered into the sector quite young. I was 19, and it was because I got career guidance from a brother’s friend who worked for the Ministry of Education back in Zimbabwe. And he quite rightly gave me advice on what options I had. And I could have gotten into anything. Motor mechanics, airframes, the military.

I could have gotten into any of those sectors. But he rightly advised me that the built environment was the only sector that didn’t have trades, that had associations of the unemployed. So, basically, it was telling me that if I became a carpenter, because I started as a carpenter and joiner, I would always be employed. Whether I’m employing myself or somebody else will always employ me. So I think that was a big draw for me.

Charlotte: That’s really interesting, isn’t it? Because those opportunities that you would always have, that also, you wanted to then, I guess, do more with that and sort of develop yourself further, and it gave you that opportunity to do so.

Abel: Yes, it’s quite a challenge. I find it very difficult to not identify myself as a carpenter, obviously. Yes. I now call myself a project manager because I think I’m doing quantity surveying with the hope of becoming a more informed project manager.

Charlotte: Yes, that makes sense. So you mentioned pursuing a career in the built environment because of the advice that you received from a friend. But I wonder whether, since joining the sector, whether you found any new role models or people who have inspired you?

Abel: Yes. You’ll notice that I’ll keep reverting back to my origins back in Zimbabwe. It’s pretty much the same, except I think things are a little bit more intense over there. So my role models, a couple of guys who were. I could see they were doing well. You could see what somebody is driving, what they’re doing with their life. So, yes, there were a couple of carpenters who were already qualified, and I think we called them journeymen or artisans over there, and they were doing well.

You could, strangely, when somebody’s doing well, and then you ask them what they’re doing, what they do, if they tell you they’re a carpenter, it’s very hard to believe or to understand how a carpenter can do so well. So I think it goes to say the career guidance that I got was worth everything that the guy offered me. So I think I had a few seniors who were plumbers and qualified carpenters who I could see what they were doing in their lives were something I could emulate.

Charlotte: That’s amazing. Cool. So what challenges potentially have you faced in the sector, either in the UK or in Zimbabwe? Of course. Have there been anything in particular that you thought that’s a real challenge or a barrier that you’ve had to face or anything like that?

Abel: Like I said, I think starting from Zimbabwe, when I joined, I was very young and I was very small in stature and nobody, I struggled for people to take me seriously. So I think it held me in a way, because when I got in, I was so charged and so ready, and I braced myself. I didn’t want to fail. And I think I overdid it. So by the time I completed, I finished top of my class and it was a good beginning for me.

But again, the challenge was because I was so young. When I completed the course, people found it difficult to believe that I had the qualification that I had, which I think we call it class one, which is the highest qualification you can get as an artisan back home. And then that same problem carried over. When I came to England, I was trying to get my qualifications accredited with the UK. I think that was what it was called then, it’s called something else now. But basically, it’s the body that accredits the qualifications. The way we do it in Zimbabwe is so intense. When you put your qualifications on the CV, it looks like you are making things up. And it manifested in me not getting. I couldn’t get a job when I got here because I was putting exactly what I qualified in and what I had done, my experiences and so forth back home. And I think the system here is more based on experience, more than qualification. I think this is in the vocational sector before I obviously started my degree, so I couldn’t get a job. That was the long end and short of it.

It’s only when I got a bit of a job with some agency in London. They employed me for about a week and then after a week they said there’s nothing for me. But they had this role where they wanted a chainman, which is basically an assistant to a site engineer on site. And I didn’t know what that was. So I asked, what is a chainman? And he explained. And then when I went on site after about a week, I was very curious what the engineer I was assisting was doing. It turned out everything he was doing I was already qualified to do based on my training as a carpenter in Zimbabwe.

Charlotte: I see.

Abel: So I think it explained why I couldn’t get a job. Maybe I was calling myself a carpenter when I was almost qualified as an engineer. So there was that disconnect.

Charlotte: Funny, isn’t it? So many our students say that they just fell into the built environment. Even there you sort of knew the sector and you knew what it was, but even then you sort of suddenly realized that actually you were like you say, almost qualified to do a job that you kind of knew existed but didn’t. Is that sort of the understanding?

Abel: Yes.

Charlotte: It’s so interesting, isn’t it, how it always seems to manifest itself in different ways.

Abel: I would say my entry into it was very peculiar. I don’t think anybody would share the same experience as me. So I think it’s probably important that I say this as it happened, in case it inspired somebody else who may be struggling to get in. The other funny part of my experience is because I’d never had a degree, I’d never gone to university before. So from my carpentry and joinery as the main qualification, that sort of carried me through the industry for almost 20 years in the UK. The next thing I did was this degree. I’m doing masters.

Charlotte: And so I guess following on from that, why would someone consider a career in the built environment?

Abel: I think the easy answer to that is that it pays well and I think it’s also fulfilling. And for me, it’s been a perfect fit. I’ve never been bored at work. I’ve never been bored at work. It’s always been challenging and no day is the same as the other day. So I guess it’s got its advantages, and I think the biggest advantage is, what do you call it? The world is your oyster.

Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely.

Abel: So many options. There’s been no ceiling for me. Basically, I take on the challenges as they come. I can take on any challenge. Like now I’m doing quantity surveying, from being a carpenter to doing quantity surveying. And still that won’t be the end of it.

Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely. That’s amazing. Is there anything you think that needs to change about the built environment to give more opportunities and to improve representation in the built environment?

Abel: Yes, I suppose, yes. What I’ve noticed is that I think the image of the industry is a bit intimidating, or it used to be intimidating. Now I think it’s quite friendly to all the diverse people who can come into it. I recall, I think in 2010 or sometime around then, I had a very brilliant young lady called Christina. I think she’s from Hungary. She joined construction industry as a chain lady, which is basically exactly how I got in as well. And then, because she was qualified, she was very qualified. I don’t know what degree she had done back in Hungary, but she was brilliant. She was so brilliant. But I think people were not giving the guidance that she needed to thrive. I think that’s what people need to do to get somebody to hold their hand until they’re in, because it takes a bit of time to get used to how things operate in the industry. It seems rough, but as long as you know what you’re doing, I think that’s the thing, to get people to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and to do it well. I think if you are given a station, you should be able to cover that station. Well, I think that’s what Christina needed.

So I think I had already been employed as an engineer for maybe a couple of years then, so I was able to give exactly the support that I was not given. So I knew exactly what she needed because I never got it, and I knew I needed it so much. So everything that I missed, as long as I could do it, I would help Christina with. And I think there were a few other guys after Christina who I helped. And even without qualification, some of them ended up being really good or working as engineers, even if they didn’t have the qualifications. So I would say for diversity, as long as there is some mentorship scheme developed for people to help each other, I think it would be a good thing for the industry.

Charlotte: Great. Thank you. And then my final question would be, what would be your advice to somebody starting their career in the built environment right now?

Abel: My advice is go for it. But you need to be ready. You need to roll up your sleeves and read the temperature in the room because the industry is fast-paced and you need to deliver. But it’s quite possible. Go for it. I think that’s the gist of it.

Charlotte: Thank you so much, Abel, for telling us and sharing with us your journey and your story today. And thank you to you for listening. We’ll be back very soon with another episode.

Aysha: Thank you for listening to the Be Part of the Change podcast. To find out more and get involved with the campaign, Google “UCEM Be Part of the Change”. If you’d like to get in touch with our student ambassadors for EDI, email