Colleges Are Retooling Their Construction Programs to Suit Today’s Students and Employers
What happens when 20 million people are expected to move to Texas in the next 30 years? Local contractors and college construction programs get busy. 

Already last year, 20,000 homes were built in the greater Austin area to accommodate the anticipated population influx, which is estimated to require the construction of 50 percent more residential units than the current stock. 

Texas State University is experiencing correlating growth in its construction science and management program to the tune of 453 students enrolled today versus 244 in 2013, due in part to the economic recovery and the school’s accreditation through the American Council for Construction Education. Correspondingly, the school’s construction job fair went from 16 companies participating in 2009 to a total of 140 employers at the fall 2016 and spring 2017 events. 

“This growth has provided excellent internship and employment opportunities, with students receiving multiple job offers,” says Vivek Sharma, senior lecturer in Texas State’s department of engineering technology. “Based on a survey of our recent graduates, starting salaries are averaging $60,000, with about 70 percent of undergraduates going into commercial construction and 30 percent entering residential construction.”

The numbers also tell a story at Colorado State University, where enrollment has gradually increased to 750 students since the economic downturn knocked it back to less than 500 around 2009 and 2010. Today, more than 95 percent of construction management students are placed in a job prior to graduation. 

“Our last two job fairs sold out in less than a week,” says Anna Fontana, internship and outreach coordinator at Colorado State. “We cannot keep up with the demand for both interns and full-time graduates.”

According to December 2016 statistics compiled by Colorado State’s construction management department, undergraduates received an average of 2.6 job offers per student with an average base salary of $62,000. Two-thirds of job placements were with an internship sponsor. 

“Because the market is so strong, our students seem more focused on finding the best fit in terms of company culture instead of just focusing on finding a job that pays,” says Kayla Boos, Colorado State’s student recruitment coordinator and academic advisor. “They value employers that care about their employees, they want to do meaningful work, and they appreciate sustainability, work-life balance and a competitive starting salary.”

Mastering the Right Curriculum
Georgia Tech looked at the downturn as an opportunity to move its undergraduate construction management program to the civil engineering department and retool its four master’s tracks (residential development, facility management, construction management from the contractor’s perspective and program management from the owner’s perspective). Prior to 2009, the school put all of its efforts into the residential and construction management tracks, but that didn’t align with what was happening in the economy.

“It used to be that almost 90 percent of students were professionals taking classes in the late afternoon or evening, but during the downturn we saw more full-time, international and out-of-state students,” says Daniel Castro, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Building Construction. “It was a sudden change, but we had to adapt.”

Now, Georgia Tech offers more courses during the day to cater to the 50 percent of enrollees who are part-time students and part-time workers. In addition to moving the residential program to a new master’s degree in real estate development (pending approval by the Board of Regents), the school expanded the program management area of study to cater more to owners.

“We saw that regardless of the economy, owners are always maintaining and building facilities,” Castro says. “We learned our lesson and are diversifying our program.”

To that end, in February Georgia Tech launched a new professional master’s in occupational safety and health (PMOSH)—the first program of its kind in the state. According to the Georgia Department of Labor, employment for occupational safety and health specialists is projected to grow 7.3 percent from 2012 to 2022. In 2013, 2,753 positions in the field required a master’s degree (a 60 percent increase since 2010), yet only 18 percent of safety professionals had one. 

“Although safety hazards are inherent to the construction process, they tend to be addressed separately rather than as an integral part of it,” Castro says. “Through PMOSH, we aim to shift the way safety is treated by equipping graduates with the knowledge, skills and confidence to address safety holistically.” 

The PMOSH degree—designed for working professionals in construction, manufacturing and related industries—covers fundamentals and standards, as well as business aspects of safety such as leadership, communication and teamwork. Technology is another important piece of the puzzle. 

“Rather than interpreting statistics and learning about causes and risks after accidents have happened, today’s technologies are designed to help us minimize safety risks so significantly fewer accidents occur,” Castro says, citing the importance of BIM and sensors to prevent collisions. “PMOSH exposes participants to current and emerging technologies so they can use them to strategically reduce hazards throughout the construction process.”

The degree takes two years to complete and is offered in a flexible online structure with three on-campus sessions—a hybrid format that suits professionals who want a challenging program but can’t afford to disrupt their work schedules.

Responding to Educational Preferences
In higher education, students (and often their employers) are the customers, so their schedules and learning preferences dictate how courses are delivered. 

“Today’s construction students prefer to be included in active learning more than their counterparts 10 years ago. Therefore, Texas State University has included more laboratory activities, computer projects and group activities than in the past,” Sharma says. “Also, because students often need to work to be able to afford school, our program plans to offer its first online class next semester to compliment other courses currently offered remotely by other departments.”

Looking ahead, Texas State is planning to create an online master’s degree for construction professionals within the next five years. The department already offers a graduate degree in technology management with a construction emphasis that caters to students making a career change from another field of study or who are already employed in the industry but don’t have a relevant degree. However, more employers see value in a professional master’s degree as a means for their employers to advance within the company, Sharma says. 

A healthy mix of technology use and educational basics seems common across the board. “Students seek value regardless of the learning platform,” says Jim Sullivan, director of undergraduate programs at the M.E. Rinker School of Construction Management at the University of Florida. “They tend to prefer live classes during their first two to three years and then seem more flexible with online classes as they get exposed to positive online experiences.”

“We have integrated project teams of both architecture and construction management students,” adds Bill Bender, chair of the construction management program at the University of Washington. “Most faculty members have moved to a learning management system with less paper and more online submission for work. We teach more technology and have it integrated through our courses.”

Colorado State’s Fontana concurs, underscoring that outside of estimating or modeling, construction careers aren’t easily confined to online or work-from-home situations. “It is difficult to develop relationships or visualize and collaborate remotely. We need to be onsite to provide the best service we can, both in the classroom and on the job,” she says.

At Georgia Tech, that translates to offering more capstone experiences so students work in teams and address challenges that they’ll see in the industry. “Those problems are very interdisciplinary. Working in teams reflects how they’ll address those issues in real life,” Castro says, adding that opportunities for collaboration exist in the digital environment as well. “The online format provides an ideal forum for engagement among program participants as well as faculty, leading to rich discussions and valuable industry connections.”

Hiring the Future Workforce
Don’t confuse the demand for online learning with laziness. Colorado State construction management students are highly motivated and technologically savvy, according to Boos. “Many of them dream of owning their own company and are eager to get as much work experience as they can,” she says.

Sharma agrees, describing students in Texas State’s program as very focused and dedicated to making a career in the construction industry. The school’s senior exit survey shows more than 90 percent of students find careers in the construction industry, and the majority have a job before they graduate. Most start their careers as field engineers or project engineers on the path to becoming superintendents; there’s also a growing trend toward being hired for BIM engineer positions.

Students are also active in community service initiatives and extracurricular groups, including the Construction Student Association, which is a student chapter for Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Buoyed by support from the ABC Central Texas Chapter and time and financial commitments from member companies such as SpawGlass, DPR and Turner, Texas State University was named ABC’s 2016 Student Chapter of the Year.

“The ability to get out of the classroom and connect with ABC member companies by participating in student competitions and experiencing networking events, jobsite tours and information sessions lends a major point of growth to our students,” says Chase Jones, president of the Texas State University Construction Student Association. “We learn not only how to manage construction projects, but also how to build up the people around us and attack challenges as a team.”

With the workforce shortage being felt across the country, college construction programs are working to prepare the next crop of workers to make an impact right away.

“They know technology, are able to work in teams and communicate well orally and in writing,” Bender says of his University of Washington graduates. “They are ready and eager to work.” 

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.

Opportunities to Collaborate and Compete 
Through Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) student chapter program—which includes a network of nearly 30 colleges and universities—students pursuing construction-related degrees can build strong relationships with each other, faculty, and local ABC chapters and members. In addition to facilitating guest speakers, internships, community service projects, career fairs and jobsite tours, ABC student chapters can participate in the association’s annual Construction Management Competition (CMC), as well as apply to be named ABC’s Student Chapter of the Year.

The 2017 CMC will take place during ABC Leadership Week Nov. 5-9 in Orlando, Fla. Sponsored in part by the Trimmer Construction Education Foundation, the event will feature teams of four students testing their project management, estimating, safety, quality control and presentation skills. Last year’s winners were Colorado State University, Florida International University and Ohio State University. 

Nominations for the 2017 ABC Student Chapter of the Year award are due Sept. 29, and the winner will be announced in November at the Future Leaders Awards Luncheon during ABC Leadership Week. The award recognizes a group’s outstanding accomplishments in programming, community service, communications/public relations and interaction with its sponsoring ABC chapter. Texas State University took home the honor last year. Winners receive $2,000 and complimentary registration, hotel accommodations and airfare for two student chapter members to attend ABC Legislative Week in Washington, D.C. 

For more information and to submit a nomination, click on the Education & Training tab at abc.org.

Degrees at Work
Check out how two employees in McCarthy Building Companies’ Dallas office are adapting their traditional architecture and construction degrees to today’s technology-driven industry.

Chris Patton
Senior VDC Manager
University of Kansas
Bachelor’s degree in architecture






Ryan Moret
Field Solution Manager
Texas A&M University
Bachelor’s degree in construction science; minor in business administration





What did you envision doing for your career?
CP: I’ve always been interested in things that require critical thinking and problem-solving. After taking drafting and design classes in high school, I saw architecture as critical thinking and problem-solving for an owner through design. 

RM: I have always loved building things and learning how big buildings and projects come together. I love finding efficient ways to solve problems.  

How does your current job line up with that vision? 
CP: I was in design for a few years, but felt I was in a bubble. I was not experiencing the challenges and business side of the real world, so I first diverged away from architecture into a design manager role for an ownership group. 

Now, I oversee and execute all of McCarthy’s VDC initiatives and projects during the preconstruction and construction phase of work within our Texas region. My focus is on the development of VDC project strategy, field personnel training, VDC execution, as well as research and development of new VDC technology. I lead a team of engineers who create models for site logistics planning, estimating, self-perform work, constructability reviews and MEP coordination. I’m also a member of McCarthy’s VDC Leadership Group. 

RM: My job enables me to work with all projects and project teams to solve their problems in creative manners using technology. 

My job is focused on evaluating new technologies and processes and helping deploy those in our company. I help bring new technology to the industry, evaluate if it would be effective for our company and then help deploy the new solution.

 Did school prepare you for the real world?
CP: School taught us critical thinking to solve problems through design. I think I am still doing that, but in a different application. I have to work within a very complex industry to help guide teams and individuals toward solutions.

RM: My education helped groom me for the construction industry, and I became involved with the industry early on via an internship. The construction science program I participated in catered well to our industry and helped ensure I was ready for work.

What technologies do you use regularly to design/build construction projects?  
CP: I use Autodesk Revit, Navisworks Manage, Civil 3D and BIM 360 products. I had to take some software training when I transitioned into the construction industry after working for the ownership group. I continue to participate in seminars that offer
classes to keep up on the latest trends. 

Technology has flooded the construction industry during the last few years—from using virtual reality mock-ups to drones and laser scanning—opening up even more tech-focused jobs for upcoming college graduates. 

RM: For me, it is primarily drones and laser scanning in addition to tablets and phones and technology surrounding that. 

I think what has been most valuable is still understanding the process of building a project and seeing how this technology can support that. No matter how much we wish, our phones will never build a hospital. Most of what I have learned has been from my experience working at McCarthy.  

Is the company involved in any collegiate programs? 
CP: I serve as a guest lecturer at Texas A&M University and I’m advising Montana Tech on its BIM curriculum. Previously, I served as a guest lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Many students reach out to us to participate in course projects through interviews and data collection, and we are happy to help them. McCarthy’s support of college programs and students is a great way for those institutions to stay acclimated to the latest trends so they can produce top-notch students who are ready for the industry the moment they graduate. 

RM: McCarthy has its own mentoring program and regularly provides internships for college students interested in a career in the construction field, including hosting college interns in our VDC department.

Additionally, as high school “careers” are on the rise, McCarthy has stepped up to begin mentoring teenagers who are ahead of their peers when it comes to their chosen career path after college. For instance, McCarthy is involved with the 2017 Mayor’s Intern Fellows Program, an eight-week paid summer internship program that introduces Dallas public high school students to careers and employment opportunities in industries and companies where they have expressed interest. McCarthy also is involved in the North Texas ACE Mentor Program in Dallas-Fort Worth.