No longer just a hodgepodge of technical courses that individual employees take at the local college campus or from the association provider to sustain a professional license, training and development have a new focus. Pushed by clients, new employees and market pressures, industry firms are finding that it is good business to directly invest in work force development.

"Twenty years ago, it was just training," says Brewer, a veteran of Motorola Corp., an early proponent of the corporate university concept. "Now, it is so much more."

As many firms expanded in the last two decades by internal growth or acquisition, many found it tougher to connect with employees. "We were concerned that our culture was getting diluted and we were losing control," says George Benoit, director of training and quality for mechanical contractor Southland Industries, Irvine, Calif. "We decided to put a strong emphasis on training folks. With our divisions so spread out, it was a challenge. Continuous improvement is part of our culture and we have formalized it." PBS&J’s Brewer agrees. "We don’t just teach skills; we teach employees how to be better learners and to take the initiative themselves," he says.

For CDM, as with other firms, the roots of the corporate university began in providing a connection to technical training. "I took over [training] in 1999 and was the first full-time person hired," says Leslie, director of what now is CDM University. "Now, I have seven people full time." The program has three distinct "colleges" that focus on business, technology and personal development training, she says. Its offerings include mandatory courses on diversity, ethics and conflict of interest.

Demonstrating to employees, especially those on the management fast-track, that the company shares career goals, has become key to recruiting and retaining coveted staff and identifying the rising stars early. "Some people are destined for great things," says Peter Greene, vice president of professional development at PCL Constructors, Denver. "We need to feed these people as much as we can as fast as we can."

"We look at future leaders and see if they’ve completed the curriculum. It’s interwoven with management success." — Diane Fasching
Vice President, Gilbane

Gilbane University, which serves the Providence, R.I., building contractor, celebrated its fifth anniversary in February, says its director, company Vice President Diane Fasching, who joined the firm as the university was launched. Former Chairman Paul Choquette "wanted consistency in client service across the organization," she says. At the time, "regions were doing their own training and there was no central database. Now, you can register for classes and get transcripts on line. Everything is automated and all online courses are linked."

Inside and Out. Employee training in class at Gilbane (above) and in field at McCarthy (left) attracts attention. (Photo left courtesy of Gilbane Building Company; right courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies, Inc.)

Fasching says the university is a way to instill a sense of corporate culture–"the Gilbane way." While 70% of the offerings are technical, the rest are "softer studies" linked to developing next-generation managers. "We look at future leaders and see if they’ve completed the curriculum," says Fasching. "It’s interwoven with management success. They know their career is being looked at."

MWH, Broomfield, Colo., created its corporate university to shore up business acumen in a technically focused firm, says Betsy Redfern, its director. "Training is creating a tool kit to help people," she says. "Learning is a behavioral model as a way to transform thinking."

MWH uses a model "where learning is a continuous event," developed at the Harvard Business School, says Redfern. She says 700 employees a year, including up to 200 from Asian offices, attend a three-day training session at headquarters. They "spend time with our senior leadership team who are teaching or presenting," she says. "Our programs are mostly interactive....Three days of lectures don’t work. We’ve tried it."

Redfern says the training builds a cohesive work environment in a far-flung organization that connects fellow staffers who often have never met or had much interaction with top MWH executives. Company Chairman Bob Uhler "calls the university the radio station," says Redfern. "While they are here, they are told to bother everyone."

No Hang-Up

But some construction industry training and development managers say that having a distinct corporate university is not essential to effective employee development. "These characteristics should exist in any good training program," says David Muehlbauer, director of training and development at Sundt Construction, Tempe, Ariz. "Other than the logo, the program is just about a firm’s relationship to business needs. We never got hung up on having a Sundt University." Muehlbauer says...

hen Mark Brewer joined Miami-based engineer PBS&J three years ago as director of organizational development, "there was no training here," he says. "Now we’re coordinating all of it." The firm is among a growing number in design and construction that now are elevating company training, employee development and "adult learning" into a top corporate priority. Some have even chosen to call their effort the company "university" and promote its connection to the corporate culture. "From day one, employees know we’re here," says Mary Leslie, corporate university director at CDM, the Cambridge, Mass.-based engineer. "We’re as much a part of day-to-day activities as anything else."