When Darren injured his arm while working to renovate a house built into an old piano factory, it turned his life’s work on its head.
Darren was helping a friend refurbish his house at an old piano factory in Primrose Hill, London, UK, when he badly hurt his arm. After multiple operations, his doctor advised him to come off the tools – for good.
He’s fine now, but the injury meant Darren had to reconsider the career that had served him so well for over 20 years. He started again, enrolling on a five-year Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management degree at the University of South Wales.
Darren’s education journey required sacrifice – weekends, Christmases, time spent with his wife and three young children – and culminated this summer with his final exams. COVID-19 threatened to derail Darren’s preparation, but after seeing an offer of support for construction students affected by lockdown shared by ISG’s Steven McGee on LinkedIn, his fears eased. Over 100 students, including Darren, took up the offer, with Steven and his band of ISG volunteers taking the time to share their expertise with every single one of them, and help the industry’s next generation continue to learn in lockdown.
For Darren, now the proud owner of a First-class Honours degree in Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management, his marathon journey has been worth every step.
Darren might not be what you’d generally expect from a built environment student. For one thing, having previously owned his own building company in East Anglia, he has already been working in the construction industry for over 20 years.
It’s an industry he loves: “I enjoy producing something from nothing, results that others might not think achievable,” he explains. “All projects have their own complexities and there’s so much skill involved – being able to utilise the skills and knowledge I have gained to deliver projects that change people’s lives is so rewarding.”
But, after an injury he suffered while renovating a two-storey house integrated within an old piano factory back in 2011 made day-to-day physical work difficult, Darren was forced to re-evaluate his place in construction. “Being on the tools was all I’d ever known,” he shares. “I had to rethink my role in the industry and start afresh.”
Darren’s passion is palpable, and he says that this passion stood him in good stead as he changed career direction – going back into education and building on his early qualifications, enrolling on an HNC Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment, before starting a five-year Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management degree at the University of South Wales, close to where he now lives. “It was tough for the first year or so learning the academic processes, but as the years have passed, I have realised that I’m grateful to still be involved in the industry,” he explains. “I’ve loved improving my knowledge base, every day is a new learning day – it doesn’t feel like work to me, because I enjoy the industry so much.”
Darren was all set to finish his degree this summer, working hard to cement his learning since Christmas in preparation for his final exams – that was until COVID-19 provoked an enforced lockdown across the UK, preventing him and his fellow students from attending university for face-to-face time with lecturers in the build-up to their career-defining exams.
Browsing LinkedIn one day, Darren stumbled across a post shared by Steven McGee, managing director for ISG’s UK construction business in London. Understanding the impact lockdown would have on those studying, Steven offered to provide construction students with the extra support they needed to enable them to continue to learn, despite being unable to attend lectures.
“I became aware that thousands of construction students in the UK would have to complete their studies at home or in halls of residence, and wouldn’t be able to continue face-to-face lectures due to COVID-19,” Steven explains.
“It occurred to me how difficult this must be for them, with no access to lecturers to answer the questions that inevitably arise.”
Steven put the call out on LinkedIn, and the response from students and ISG volunteers alike was overwhelming.
Over 100 students reached out, with Steven, ISG early careers talent partner Emma Simpson, project engineer Zahra Ghaffari, and education engagement manager Karen Vigar, working together to pair each student with members of the ISG team according to the specialism required – quantity surveying, design management, construction management, building services or engineering.
Creating an informal ‘buddy’ system, 38 ISG volunteers were paired with students, with each ‘buddy’ then providing technical advice and coursework guidance with students directly.
Darren was one of those to reach out. He was put in touch with divisional commercial director, Jason Monk, and they chatted on Skype: “It was interesting to hear the views of someone with such a wealth of knowledge and experience, especially in terms of industry practice,” says Darren. “Speaking to Jason was really helpful because we talked about live examples from the commercial world that were relevant and current, so I was able to apply my learning to them.”
Darren’s exams are finally over, and the fruits of his labour speak for themselves. He did what he set out to achieve, finishing with a First-class Honours degree in Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management, and even receiving a Certificate of Excellence for the Best Overall Dissertation. He’s excited by his next goal – working towards achieving his Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) chartership in Project Management – as he continues to enhance his skill set and study the industry he loves.
He’s rightfully delighted, but he’s also thankful to Steven, Jason and the wider team at ISG for helping not just him, but others affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you see what ISG has done through the crisis, you can appreciate that it’s a caring company with wonderful values and a desire to improve and support the industry – it’s made up of great people who are really proud to work there,” Darren concludes. “I really can’t thank everyone enough for their time, especially during these unprecedented times – it highlights what an amazing company ISG is.”