UK surveying professionals are expressing increasing interest in working in Australia – but you must be sure to understand the distinctive character of the market there before making the move
More than 7 years after I wrote for RICS on the challenges I faced as a building surveyor relocating from the UK to Australia, my article continues to help others peer through the looking glass. And just as it was for Alice, things on the other side are not what you’d expect – increasingly so the more time passes.
When I wrote that article, I included the kind of information I would have liked to have had when I was working out how to move to Australia. As a result, I’ve had UK-based building surveyors from various walks of life reach out to me seeking guidance when making a similar move. The past 12 months alone have seen a rise in such messages: I can only speculate about the impact that Brexit and COVID-19 have had on the prospects for UK professionals.
With this increasing interest, then, it’s a good time to provide an update. In this article, I will take a look at some frequently asked questions about relocating to Australia as a building surveyor.
What is building surveying in Australia?
RICS Oceania has sought to mitigate confusion caused by the region’s shared terminology by using “chartered surveyor (building surveying)” to refer to the role RICS and its members understand as a building surveyor.
In Australia, the property and construction sector remains generally ambivalent about this term, so the role is typically referred to as a building consultant. On a job website such as Seek or Jora, or on LinkedIn, you will find what you are looking for if you search for this.
RICS Oceania has made efforts to trademark “chartered building surveyor” in response to an attempt by Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS) to do the same. However, the construction sector in most states and territories continues to recognise the AIBS definition of building surveyor, sometimes also referred to as a “building certifier” or “building code consultant”. This role focuses primarily on compliance with the Building Code of Australia (BCA), and closely corresponds to the role of the building control surveyor in the UK.
This issue of terminology is among many currently being addressed by the Australian Building Code Board (ABCB)’s public consultation on the National Registration Framework for Building Practitioners, for which RICS issued positioning statements. The public consultation closed on 23 August.
Used by itself, the word “surveyor” is closely associated with the enormous national mining and engineering industries in Australia, and the work undertaken for them by cadastral surveyors. This definition transcends those sectors, and reflects the way the term is commonly understood in Australia.
Meanwhile, even though chartered surveyors (building surveying) are used to exercising a broad skill set in project management and contract administration, roles in both of those fields remain reserved to individuals with dedicated qualifications for separable skill sets.
Australia still has use for chartered surveyors (building surveying) as building consultants, when they undertake commercial technical due diligence (TDD) and life-cycle reporting, or prepare schedules of dilapidation and negotiation. Rarely will the role extend into project management or contracts, but it’s not unheard of. It is more likely that your qualification will land you in a specific project management role that overlaps with building consultancy from time to time.
Typically, firms and the people responsible for hiring building consultants include RICS-qualified expats who occupy project management roles at corporate real-estate firms, so these are a good place to start looking for jobs.
As for project management and contract administration roles elsewhere, such as tier-1 builders or Australian project management firms, you will as a chartered surveyor (building surveying) have to go to some lengths to demonstrate not just your experience but also that your qualifications reflect the necessary competencies. Having your qualification subject to a skills assessment by an Australian assessing authority may help; this is also a requirement of some classes of visa.
What specific regional knowledge do I need?
Generally speaking, you will always be applauded for learning as much as you can about regional requirements and expectations, and this learning is eligible for CPD. However, if you have gained adequate commercial experience anywhere in the world beyond academia, you will be able to apply it in the Australia and New Zealand market. There are certainly nuances, details and peculiarities, but these are not insurmountable and will not keep you from successfully landing a job.
Confidence, competency, and communication can take you far. If you begin to focus outside commercial and corporate real estate, though, matters become more challenging. Indeed, there are even barriers that will stop you completely.
For example, a building surveyor may be perfectly competent in undertaking a residential pre-purchase inspection; however, some states and territories have laws that require a licence to do so. RICS building surveyors may be unable to meet the requirements for this licence because it is designed to reflect the experience of AIBS professionals or tradespeople looking to “get off the tools”, to use the Australian vernacular.
What terminology do Australian professionals use?
When gearing your CV for the Australian market, it will stand you in good stead to have a grasp of some of the specific terminology. Table 1 provides a useful – though by no means exhaustive – guide to corresponding terms.
What are the salary expectations?
This is a common and important question. After all, your motivation for a move to Australia may be mainly financial, so you will want to make sure you get the salary you’re looking for.
Just as important, however, is understanding the cost of living in Australia compared with the UK. While salaries may be more than twice the figures of those for similar roles in the UK, currency conversion means that not all the extra cash stays in your pocket.
You should use property rental websites such as realestate.com.au or Domain to gauge weekly rent in various areas, and supermarket websites such as Aldi, Coles or Woolworths to estimate how much you might spend on groceries. You might be surprised – or shocked.
It’s entirely possible to estimate online the minimum salary you’d be comfortable agreeing to. A wealth of information is available on the Department of Home Affairs website, which confirms that the minimum annual pre-tax salary of a worker with a visa subject to the temporary skilled migration income threshold is currently A$53,900, while an Australian pay calculator can accurately extrapolate your post-tax salary.
All I can add to this anecdotally is that it is possible to earn up to twice that amount as a building consultant or project manager – or a hybrid of both – as a first-time skilled visa worker. Of course, this depends on your qualifications and experience. A qualified chartered surveyor (building surveying) is still considered to have a unique skill set in Australia; corporate real-estate firms recognise its value and are well versed in deploying it.
Be prepared, however: in some scenarios, visa applications and sponsorship schemes may require an employer to demonstrate that it first gave sufficient time to advertise the role in the Australian market before proceeding with a temporary skilled migration worker.
Last, you should consider how any outstanding student loan or other debt outside Australia will be handled. The UK’s Student Loans Company will ask you to complete an income overseas assessment, following which it will demand a flat-rate repayment updated annually. You might see the rate jump a couple of hundred dollars per month more than you expected when this happens, and each payment you transfer will be subject to the foreign exchange rate.
What is it like to work in Australia?
I must declare that the purpose of this article, nor anything I say generally, is to be construed as providing advice, and certainly not advice normally the reserve of a migration agent! What I am at the liberty to do however, is relay my own personal experience, and with their permission, some of the very personal experiences of others. Naturally some have requested anonymity rather than declare their intentions to their current employers.
Expect the journey will include sacrifice – which can take many forms – but remember that it is possible. You needn’t just take my word for it.
Joe Bromwich, construction project manager at KPMG Property and Environmental Services, Melbourne
It had always been a dream of mine to move to Australia and recognised that a career in construction was the way for me.
After a couple of years’ experience, I was content in my role at Arcadis until I saw Craig’s post on LinkedIn advertising building consultant positions with KPMG SGA in Australia (now known as KPMG Property and Environmental Services). After ruminating on it, I took the plunge and responded to the ad. Suddenly I felt motivated and began searching Australian job sites, contacting the odd building surveying firm here and there – erroneously so, discovering the roles to be building control. The difference in terminology made me pivot to a broader search for project management and contract administrator roles. Eventually, I received a positive response to the initial enquiry, which resulted in a semi-formal phone interview. After a few weeks things went quiet which I put down to big firm bureaucracy. The night before New Year’s eve I got a call offering me a position in Sydney and from there things moved very quickly; visa applications, references, renewing identity docs and finding a sensibly priced one-way flight (which I paid for myself).
A week before I was due to leave, everything was in place: colleagues and clients were informed and thrilled for me; and projects dutifully handed over. I got a call from Sydney offering me the same position in Melbourne. It was my preferred location and I jumped at it. Since arriving I’ve had the chance to undertake TDD inspections, Defect reporting, Make Good surveys and Schedules of Condition, much of which I rarely had the chance to be involved with as my previous UK role mainly catered to the education sector. Even though there was hard work, I’m still very lucky all of it occurred when it did.
Tom Annau, senior building surveyor at Trident Building Consultancy Ltd, UK
After my Skype chat with Craig in 2016, I moved New Zealand in 2018; primarily because my partner at the time was Kiwi.
I have considered working in Australia a few times since, but knowing the issues a friend of mine had with visas, it has put me off considering it seriously. In particular, the hassle in getting Permanent Residency (PR) visa status. PR appears to be comparatively easier to obtain in New Zealand as a BS. I recently returned to the UK because I wanted to be nearer my family.
Tom Turner, quantity surveyor at WT Partnership, Sydney
After reading Craig’s original 2013 article I contacted him in December 2016. Craig gave me an overview of how he secured a position in Australia, including a vital piece of information: that a fundamental part of my identity as a building surveyor – my job title – had to go. I had to substitute it for ‘building consultant’.
It was my ambition to live in Australia, which I held for some time before I chose a career in surveying. My family had settled for a spell in Perth, Western Australia. When I was a toddler however, my parents moved back to Scotland. My next trip to Australia was in my early twenties for a holiday. I knew then I would explore my options after completing my APC.
After becoming chartered in 2017, I pursued a role at CBRE in Sydney as a building consultant through a reference of a former colleague. This cut out a lot of the stress involved in emigrating to Australia on a short-term visa; having to find employment and getting by in the interim. I arrived later that year and began to set up a life here. I’ve been here ever since.
The right to work and reside in Australia presents unique challenges. Australia seeks to train its own domestic workforce, so migrating is not as simple as it may have once been. The fact that RICS Building Surveying isn’t properly recognised in Australia means that the government has not made this a priority on skills shortage lists. Building surveyors seeking a move to Australia should be prepared for it to be temporary due to visa constraints. It may be difficult for building surveyors to transition into roles that are on the skills shortage list. I recommend speaking to a registered migration agent before making any plans to move.
Australia has many opportunities for building surveyors however the role and recognition is different here, and there can be issues relating to remaining long term. However, because RICS Building Surveyors are few here, travel for work is often on the cards. I’ve visited most states through work, and it certainly makes a change meeting a kangaroo when inspecting an industrial shed. The lifestyle, although matched by high living costs, is a draw here and if you are interested in the climate and outdoor recreation then Australia definitely offers more sunshine than a lot of other destinations.
A number of professionals have also contacted me in confidence to share their experiences:
• I arrived in Australia in March 2020. My partner’s arrival was due two weeks later but unfortunately the borders were closed by the government so I had to come back. I had interviews lined up following arrival, but of course these were cancelled too due to the circumstances. I plan to return when the dust settles, but right now I’m back in the UK!
• I wasn’t able to find any BS work in Australia. As a graduate lacking experience it was understandable. It would have been a big investment for an employer to sponsor me. After a year my relationship broke down and I ended up coming back to the UK. Maybe I just had enough of hospitality! Perhaps now that I’m Chartered, and with a few more years’ experience under my belt it could be a different story.
• We’re looking for a way to make the move and the main challenge has been navigating the visa options and routes. We’re currently exploring the possibility of my partner getting sponsored in their profession as an accountant, rather than me as a Building Surveyor.
Working through the visas
It took nearly seven and a half years after I arrived in Australia myself to become a citizen.
I arrived with my fiancée on a 417 subclass 12 month “working holiday” visa before I was 30. My CV cover letters were transparent about seeking employer sponsorship, eventually scoring a Building Consultant & PM role with Cushman & Wakefield (formally DTZ, a UGL Company) with the title of ‘building consultant and project manager’.
My employer agreed to sponsor me on a four-year, subclass 457 visa, which included my fiancée as a de facto applicant. I moved to KPMG SGA Property Consultancy – now KPMG Property and Environmental Services – when there was more than a year left on this visa, and the new employer simply reapplied for a new one instead of transferring the remaining time across. Soon, I was eligible to apply to be a permanent resident under employer nomination subclass 186.
My employer agreed to support my application, with my now wife as a de facto applicant. The company also agreed to a financial contribution in lieu of a raise or bonus that year, and completed the process through its own migration agents.
During this time my first son was born in Brisbane and the application had to be updated to include him, resulting in further costs and health screenings. My wife, son and I were granted permanent residency, a visa for which the travel facility can be renewed every five years indefinitely so you can leave and re-enter the country as often as you like.
After a year on this visa we were eligible to apply for citizenship, but didn’t do so right away. When our second son was born, he was the first of us to become an Australian citizen because we were already permanent residents.
We completed our own citizenship applications shortly afterwards – which were significantly less costly and time-consuming than previous visa applications – and became citizens in an online ceremony during lockdown in June 2020.
Since our arrival in Australia, much has changed. Prime ministers have come and gone – several times – and often the goalposts have moved along with them. For instance, the working holiday visa is now available to those up to 35 years of age, but only if they are French, Canadian or Irish citizens. For other eligible countries the age limit remains 30.
The skilled occupations list has also been updated to exclude some jobs and qualifications, such as the key role often used by building surveyors in applications, namely building inspector.
Sacrifices and support
We have faced a number of challenges along the way that had nothing to do with employment or visas.
When we first arrived, for instance, we had no accommodation or transport of our own. But people gave us a place to stay and lent us their cars to drive to interviews. We were prepared to return to the UK after a year, and my wife always had this in mind so she could remain close to her family.
But the year we got married my father passed away, and we flew back to the UK at short notice; it was when we returned to Australia afterwards and it felt like flying home that it became clear we were going to stay there.
The biggest sacrifice we’ve made is not having our children’s grandparents nearby, and the immediate family support they could provide. At times it’s very hard. Even the comfort provided by being able to fly back to family in the UK at a moment’s notice has been taken away from us by the pandemic.
Technology makes it manageable, however, as well as close local friendships and communities. The life we have built is incomparable to what might have been in the UK, and reflects the sacrifices we’ve made.
A personal process
One of the main things to remember is that there is no single, surefire way to relocate successfully, because the process will be personal. As well as relevant work experience, variables also include your partnership status, dependents and your age.
In determining which visa subclasses you’re eligible for and successfully completing each stage of the process, consulting a migration agent about your options is useful.
Bear in mind that chartered surveyor (building surveying) continues to be a coveted and unique role in Australia and New Zealand, and rules, regulations and eligibilities regularly change. Who knows what it will look like in a few years’ time?