Parissa Kokabi talks construction careers with Building

The construction industry includes an impressive variety of roles – but unless you are on the inside, it can be hard to know how to break in, let alone progress to the top.

Parissa Kokabi, assistant cost consultant at Currie & Brown, spoke to Building magazine to shed some light on the topic. Parissa shared her experience entering the industry and advice for other career starters as part of the publication’s My route into construction series.

Read the original interview in Building magazine.

1. How long have you been working and what is your current job?

Six years as a professional quantity surveyor in the Public Sector at Currie & Brown.

2. What were your first career ambitions? Would your 16-year-old former self be surprised at what you’re doing now?

I was generally interested in science and maths at school, but also enjoyed being creative with art, music and languages. As a result, I found it difficult to choose a career path that would suit my wide interests. After talking to family, teachers, and career advisers, I ended up choosing to study Geology at the University of Edinburgh as this allowed me to learn in the field, as well as in the lab. This was important to me as I learn best by doing, and generally enjoy being outdoors!

After university, I decided that I wanted to gain industry experience. I expected to join either the construction or oil and gas industry, as these were common career routes for GeoScience graduates, other than continuing down the academic route (which I decided wasn’t for me).

3. When did you first start thinking about a career in construction and why?

Throughout university, we often looked at scenarios within various industries, including construction. I enjoyed this part of the course, and became interested in a career within the construction industry – although I had little understanding of what quantity surveying was until I started looking for jobs following graduation. After researching the career path, I decided that it could be a good fit as it suited my interest in working within the industry, getting involved in exciting projects, and being able to learn in practice by attending project meetings and being on site regularly.

4. Who or what helped you get where you are today?

I did not have a traditional route into quantity surveying, as I was the first in my family to work in the construction industry and had no prior knowledge or experience. However, my qualifications from school and university helped me gain personable skills as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills. I also worked part-time alongside school and university in various hospitality jobs, which improved my confidence and ability to work under pressure and as part of a team. I think these transferrable skills massively help to adapt to any career path.

5. Did your choice of subjects/qualifications in education help or hinder you getting a job in the sector?

I don’t think my qualifications hindered me in any way. Currie & Brown has a great programme for non-cognate graduates/students, offering a fully funded post-graduate degree in Quantity Surveying, alongside a full-time job. This helped me to gain a greater understanding of construction in theory whilst applying it in my day-to-day job.

6. Have you had to overcome any other barriers to get where you are today?

Moving from Glasgow to London for my first graduate job at Currie & Brown was a nerve wracking but also exciting opportunity. Leaving my comfort zone of being with friends and family every other day, to suddenly knowing no one and having to build new relationships. I initially found it difficult to navigate myself through London, especially being a Glaswegian middle eastern woman in a male dominated industry. However, with help from colleagues and frequent visits from friends and family, I slowly began to enjoy London more and more every day, and haven’t looked back since!

7. What do you know now about the industry that you wish you knew when you were at school?

I wish I knew more about the construction industry in general, and that there were career opportunities within the industry that I could genuinely pursue as a woman.

8. What surprised you about the industry as a new starter?

I was surprised at the variety of projects that we worked on within the company, from bridges and highways to hotels, offices, hospitals, and schools. I liked that many projects were shared between different teams, such as the project managers, quantity surveyors and building surveyors.

Within these different teams, I discovered that my Currie & Brown colleagues had come from a wide range of backgrounds, such as architecture, engineering, law, economics, geography, and philosophy. This made me feel at ease, as I had also come from a different academic background. It also made me realise that I could truly specialise and succeed in this career.

Lastly, I was surprised at the level of support that Currie & Brown was prepared to provide to enable me to grow and succeed in my career.

9. What are the best and hardest bits of your job?

Over time I’ve worked on a variety of small to large scale projects and have had exposure to different clients, contractors and other project team members. Each project is completely different, and I enjoy the challenge that this brings. It also feels great to know that I add value to projects with the experience and knowledge I’ve built to date, and that I can confidently manage my own projects and maintain and build new relationships. I recently attended an all-woman meeting on one of my projects, including clients and project team members, which felt amazing to be a part of.

With my job, I have travelled to many cities outside of London as well as around inner and outer London. I love that I can see a project evolve from paper to reality, and it’s a pleasure to stumble upon past projects and know that I was part of the successful team that delivered them.

Coming into the industry initially, it found slightly difficult to find my voice within a male dominated industry. However, I’ve realised over time that this is quite common with new starters, and that confidence grows with your experience. It’s also great to see more women in higher positions in the industry and within my company, and to know that I can also achieve that in my future.

10. For someone coming through the school system now, what advice do you have about choosing a construction-related career?

The construction industry is full of possibilities. There are great opportunities to get involved in projects that excite you and help your career grow. It can initially be overwhelming to learn and work on the job, but everyone is on the same boat, so don’t be hard on yourself! Keep asking questions and push yourself out your comfort zone. What one thing would you change to make finding a career in the built environment sector easier?

I would like to see more women being represented and engaged in the built environment from all different backgrounds and positions, and to know what their experience was like and how they got involved in the industry. I think this would have helped to accelerate and solidify my future career plans.

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