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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.” 


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