Skip to main content

Colleges around the nation prepare future construction managers for promising careers

Construction management-bound college graduates today are finding that, more and more, universities are responding to the challenges of an ever advancing field. Higher education programs around the nation are collaborating with industry leaders and accreditation agencies to develop specialized curriculums to prepare students for successful careers. As engineers and architects try to keep up with global competition to design the most innovative structures, demand for skilled construction managers is surging, and employers are seizing students faster than they can graduate.

While construction management as a profession has existed for many years, colleges have not always offered the specialized degrees they do now. Rather, construction/building science degrees have slowly evolved over the past approximately 70 years. They are a result of a combination of factors, including the homecoming of World War II soldiers in need of housing, as well as a philosophical shift in engineering education. The “Summary of the Report on Evaluation of Engineering Education,” published in a 1955 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education, called for an increase in the application of scientific principles to engineering curriculums, and resulted in the eventual removal of management-focused courses. To make up for the management skills gap, many universities began offering alternatives to traditional engineering degrees, sometimes within existing engineering and architecture departments, and other times within new departments.

Since their make-shift beginnings in the 1940s, construction management degree programs around the nation have become highly sophisticated. Not only are the programs of better quality, but also of increasing quantity. The U.S. Department of Labor reports in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, that there are approximately 105 undergraduate programs across the nation in construction science, building science, and construction engineering, as well as approximately 60 graduate programs in construction management or construction science. That’s approximately two undergraduate and one graduate program for every state, on average. Of those 165 construction-related undergraduate and graduate degree programs, 68 are certified by the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE), according to the listing of accredited schools on its website. Accreditation criteria include a curriculum that continually adapts to requirements and advancements in construction, including social, economic, and technological developments; as well as to contributions from related fields, such as engineering.

Schools can go to great lengths to ensure their curriculums are in line with industry needs and ACCE accreditation requirements. Dr. Yilmaz H. Karasulu, undergraduate coordinator and assistant professor to the department of construction science at Texas A&M University, said that his department conducted interviews with four industry focus groups to gain perspectives on what topics make up a comprehensive construction science curriculum. The result of the focus group study is briefly discussed in a report titled, “Evolution of Construction Education in the United States: A Case Study,” written by Dr. Karasulu and his colleague, Dr. Richard Burt, associate department head and associate professor. It states that the most important course topics identified relate to business and construction management. Texas A&M combined the focus group input with its own university requirements and the specific elements needed for ACCE accreditation to develop its current curriculum.

As demand for construction managers currently exceeds supply, a concerted effort to prepare students for careers in construction management is crucial to sustaining industry productivity. With the long-term increase in the number of construction projects, a decrease in labor supply has become a formidable problem. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, the construction labor supply is dwindling due to an aging management workforce, transfers out of the field, and lack of a work environment appealing to prospective employees. Construction employers must focus on attracting and retaining younger generations to keep pace with current and future industry demands.

Luckily, many college graduates are deciding to pursue the profession of construction management. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, reports a faster than average construction employment growth rate, with job opportunities exceeding the number of qualified candidates. For those candidates that do qualify, many challenging job opportunities exist. Generally, graduates of construction science programs take on roles in project management, estimating, and scheduling, and quickly reach increasing levels of responsibility. Many students have multiple job offers upon graduation.

In addition to abundant job opportunities, starting salaries for building science graduates are also promising. A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree in construction science or construction management attained average starting salaries of $46,930 per year. Furthermore, a May 2006 Department of Labor publication regarding the annual salaries of construction managers of varying seniority found that the middle 50 percent earned between $56,090 and $98,350. The median income was $73,700, with the highest paid 10 percent making over $135,780 and the lowest paid 10 percent making under $43,210.

Employers are also benefiting from the changing climate in building science education. That is because degreed professionals offer the skills needed for the growing complexities inherent in present-day projects, such as accelerated schedules, increasing reliance on project management and scheduling software, globalization of project operations, and new laws governing labor, materials, and the environment. Construction industry employers realize these complexities require fine-tuned management skills. Thus, many prefer to hire construction science graduates, rather than train others who may be inexperienced in project management.

How do engineering degrees shape up in comparison to construction science degrees when it comes to preparing students for jobs in construction? A white paper published by a strategy committee at the Construction Industry Institute (CII), concludes that the need for project management knowledge transfer to engineering students is increasing. While civil engineering degrees do provide some courses in project management, the paper indicates that current project management coursework in other engineering disciplines such as electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering, is too limited. Many firms are requiring new hires to complete internal training on project management to compensate for this deficiency. Therefore, from an employer’s perspective, it can save time and money to hire employees that possess project management skills from the outset.

For building science students, often a larger percentage of coursework is focused on management principles. Many universities have increased the number of courses offered in business and management due to changes in curriculum standards over the years. Capstone courses can further students’ management skills by providing hands-on experience in real-life construction projects. For instance, at some universities, including Texas A&M, students work with local industry mentors to complete various phases of a project, such as preparing a bid proposal. In addition, including more project management coursework in college can have a positive impact on the jobsite. For example, a CII study acknowledged that including more management courses in engineering curricula would greatly benefit on-the-job performance by improving the time and cost effectiveness of design efforts, internal company processes, and capital facilities projects.

Is there a trend toward more universities offering construction management and building science degrees? “I’m not sure if it’s a trend. I do believe everyone recognizes the need,” states Dr. Karasulu. As construction industry officials try to keep pace with building demand, they can rest assured knowing that universities are equipping the next generation of construction managers with the necessary skills to meet future project needs.