Why it’s never too late for a career change – a Q&A with UCEM Programme Leaders Jon Hubert and Nicola Allen

Posted on: 3 July, 2024

For our Be Part of the Change campaign, we sat down for a chat with two of our programme leaders, Jon Hubert and Nicola Allen, who both transitioned into the built environment after long careers in other sectors.

Earlier this year, UCEM launched Be Part of the Change – our campaign to challenge the lack of representation in the built environment and share the success stories of students, staff, alumni and professionals in the industry.

Visit the Be Part of the Change site >

The idea of a “career for life” is far from the reality for a growing number of career changers. Both Jon and Nicola transitioned into the built environment after long careers in other sectors – and they’re not the only ones. Over 1.7 million people in the UK switched sectors between 2021 and 2022.

There’s also a growing number of people thinking about changing careers: a recent study by KPMG puts the figure at 40% of the entire workforce.

Despite this, there’s a perception that career changes are only for younger people. Jon and Nicola are both proof that this isn’t true. Jon had a 20-year IT career under his belt before going back to university to do an architectural technology degree, while Nicola worked as a radiographer in the NHS for 10 years before joining her father’s building surveying firm.

In this conversation, Jon and Nicola share their stories, and give advice to career changers thinking about entering the built environment.

About Jon

Jon is the Programme Leader for the BSc (Hons) Building Control at UCEM. After leaving school with two ‘A’ Levels, Jon worked in various IT jobs for over 25 years before starting a degree. That prompted a career change into academia, learning and teaching in the built environment leading to the current role at UCEM. While working at UCEM, Jon continues his research toward a PhD at the University of Portsmouth.

About Nicola

Nicola is the Programme Leader for BSc (Hons) Building Surveying at UCEM. She’s a Building Surveyor who trained at the University of the West of England, and is also an Associate member of the RICS and the Chartered Association of Building Engineers

Nicola has experience in higher education, teaching at UCEM and previously at Birmingham City University, where she delivered sessions and modules on various Building Surveying and Built Environment topics.

With over 10 years of professional experience as a Building Surveyor and Project Manager, Nicola has successfully delivered schemes in the commercial and education sectors, including refurbishment projects and new build developments.

Nicola is also an RICS Associate Assessor, contributing to the professional development of aspiring surveyors.

“Why leave?”

Both Jon and Nicola had achieved a level of seniority in their previous careers, so one of our first questions was “why leave”?  The answer, for both Jon and Nicola, was similar: to gain a better work/life balance.

Jon was working 60+ hour weeks delivering IT training. He was on call one weekend a month, and not seeing enough of his family.

Nicola had risen to a senior level in the NHS, on a good salary, but by 2012 she longed for a change: not least because as a radiographer, she was literally working in the dark. “I wanted a job where I could see the sunlight!”, she said.

Making the change

Jon enrolled at university in 2008, intending to pursue a career in architecture. “I was always attracted to the possibilities that technology brings. I learned to draw on A1 paper, but when AutoCAD technology came along, I was struck by how it could revolutionise the way we collaborate to design buildings.”

While Jon was getting to grips with his new life as a student, Nicola accepted a job at her father’s building surveying firm, where she enrolled on an apprenticeship at UCEM.

Both had a steep learning curve ahead of them, especially when their career paths led them to academia.

“I never actually became an architect”, says Jon. “Instead, I went into academia. I became a programme leader in 2015.”

Transferable skills

IT and medicine might not appear to have much in common with the built environment, but both Jon and Nicola found that their skillsets transferred seamlessly to the built environment. “Knowing how to talk to people is really important in this industry – and that’s a skill a front-line NHS job definitely gives you,” Nicola told us.

“It’s definitely EQ not IQ that’s most valuable in this industry” said Jon.

With his background in IT training, Jon can see the potential for technology to make a huge impact in the built environment. “There’s loads of great tech out there, but people don’t always know how to use it. AutoCAD technology is so sophisticated, but you still end up with disparities between how a building is designed and how it’s actually built.”

“Back yourself”

Changing careers in your 30s or 40s (or older) brings with it the prospect of a pay cut. How did Jon and Nicola approach this?

“It’s important to back yourself”, said Jon. I’d always earned an average wage, but I gave that up to earn exactly zero for three years while I got my degree. After that I became a lecturer, which paid substantially less than I made in IT.”

“Academia is a whole other world, but the great thing about it is the variety. It will always be interesting, and you never stop learning.”

“I halved my salary when I left the NHS for building surveying”, said Nicola. “You have to be willing to jump off the top or middle of one ladder to start again at the bottom of another”.

“But if you don’t, you’ll die wondering”, added Jon. “I would say do it, but have a plan. Work out what it is you want to change about your career, and then plan out what you’re going to do over the next 6,12, or 24 months to make it happen.”

The industry’s future

What do Jon and Nicola think the future of the built environment will look like for those who are considering a career change?

“I think it’s becoming more diverse”, says Nicola.

“There’s less of the ‘pale, male and stale’ demographic than there used to be”, agrees Jon, “although there’s still a way to go.”

The advancement of technology has the potential to revolutionise aspects of the industry, in Jon’s view: “There will be jobs in this sector in the next 5-10 years that we haven’t even thought of yet. Just look at the very recent emergence of roles for drone pilots. That’s something that just didn’t exist a few years ago.”

“Legislation needs to keep up”, says Nicola, “and the regulating bodies need to do their bit too. They definitely have a role to play in increasing diversity in our sector.”

“I think the future of the industry is going to be largely influenced by a combination of technology and legislation”, says Jon. “We’re going to see new materials and new technologies taking over some of the traditional processes in the way we create new buildings – and we need an influx of new talent to keep diversifying the sector.”

“Absolutely”, says Nicola. “Career changers are a vital part of that because like Jon and I, they bring unique perspectives from their previous careers and experiences. Our industry has never needed that more than it does today.”

Visit the Be Part of the Change site >

To find out more about the Be Part of the Change campaign and get involved, visit the homepage. If you’d like to get in touch with our Student Ambassadors for EDI, email outreachandinclusion@ucem.ac.uk