While construction education continues to gain a foothold at the university level, it remains a discipline in search of its identity. At the 100-plus U.S. schools that offer four-year construction degrees, construction programs sometimes are tucked under the umbrellas of engineering or architecture departments that may seem unlikely.

But change is at hand. Construction programs are evolving. Once considered primarily as training grounds for construction managers, programs have ventured into areas usually associated with engineering, such as research and continuing education. But even as construction programs develop, many still seek respect. "Most construction programs are treated as a stepchild," says Larry Grosse, head of the Dept. of Manufacturing Technology and Construction Management at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "Architecture and engineering are older programs. Construction management is still a startup."

GROWING UP Schools teach contruction management, but also are venturing into research and continuing education.
(Photo courtesy of Wentworth Institute of Technology.)

The American Council for Construction Education, Monroe, La., which has accredited construction programs since 1974, now has 60 accredited schools, says David Dupree, ACCE's executive vice president. By comparison, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Baltimore, Md., has been accrediting engineering programs since 1932 and lists 217 accredited civil engineering programs and 82 in civil engineering technology.

CSU's MTCM department is in the College of Applied Human Sciences, which Grosse says helps differentiate it from CSU's engineering programs. "Our students take engineering courses and we have a good working relationship with [the engineering department], but it's a distinct advantage" to be in a separate college, he says. With 650 undergraduates, CSU has one of the nation's largest university construction programs.

At the University of Florida, Gainesville, students can choose from two routes for construction education: a civil engineering degree with a construction management emphasis, or a building construction degree from the College of Design, Construction and Planning, formerly the College of Architecture. The former is geared toward construction engineering careers in transportation and infrastructure, while the latter is focused on buildings, says Charles Glagola, associate professor of civil engineering.

SEEKERS Southern Illinois' Bodapati says research could raise industry profitability.
(Photo courtesy of SIUE School of Engineering.)

Industry firms see value in construction-centered programs. "The good schools pay attention to developing interpersonal skills," says Sal LaScala, senior vice president for Turner Construction, New York City. He says construction schools have done well at developing people skills, but Turner also finds "excellent students in classical engineering programs, where they learn how to solve problems." Turner hires about 200 new recruits per year, with an equal mix of engineering and construction management degrees.

Denny Dahl, human resources director at Denver-based PCL Construction Enterprises Inc., agrees that C-schools are a good fit for students seeking careers with construction contractors. "The [C-schools] do a spectacular job of giving kids street smarts," he says, citing the need for strong business and management skills. About one-third of PCL's new recruits major in construction management. He sees that growing to 50% over the next few years.


One topic being debated is the level of research at C-schools. Some feel construction lags too far behind other industries in research. Others see an industry with already tight profit margins that is sometimes expected to fund research with little practical application. But most agree a lack of funding is the main obstacle to increasing research.

"The amount of construction research is woefully inadequate," says James Smith, head of Texas A&M's construction science department. Although industry funds much of what research there is, Smith says academia and industry need to work together more closely so "companies can see a benefit" to supporting more.

IDENTITY CSU sets separate course.
(Photo courtesy of Colorado State University.)

Narayan Bodapati, chair of the construction department at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, says the construction industry "spends less than 0.5% of total construction value on research." Other industries, such as pharmaceutical and aerospace, invest up to 20%, he says. Acknowledging tight margins, he says "that's all the more reason to improve efficiencies" through research that can increase productivity.

Contractors say research has to be more practical, not just more prevalent. "Some [past research] will never be applied in the field," says Turner's LaScala. "It needs to solve real problems and be something that helps things go up faster, safer and more economically."

Another deterrent to contractor-funded university research is the fact that results are often made available to all contractors, not just the firms funding the research. "Contractors don't want to fund research to help the competition," says the University of Florida's Glagola, a former contractor.

One solution might be to find funding outside of the construction industry, such as the federal government. The University of Florida has obtained federal funding to research topics such as improving project management techniques and real-time readout of compaction equipment. But some say more federal participation is needed. "Construction is not getting its fair share" of federal funding, says Ken Eickmann, director of the Construction Industry Institute, Austin, Texas. CII plans to seek funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Currently, its coordinated research is funded by member firms.

Opinions vary on whether more research at construction schools could detract from teaching. PCL's Dahl believes schools should focus on recruiting and training sorely needed construction managers, rather than on theoretical research. CII's Eickmann says construction research is so meager that "we're a long way from the point [of overemphasizing it]." CSU's Grosse acknowledges that "you have to strike a balance between research and teaching."


Educators and contractors laud the growth of internships and co-op programs at construction schools. Some now require co-ops. At Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston, students must participate in a two-semester co-op program before graduation. "Most students will graduate with one year of practical experience," says Mark Hasso, CM program coordinator.

PCL finds internships also lead to lower turnover, according to Dahl. Five-year retention rates average about 30% for new hires without internship experience and 100% for employees who have interned with the company, he says.

To properly recruit and educate the construction work force, some industry experts say the process needs to start years before college and continue long after graduation.

With a deficit of construction workers growing by over 100,000 per year, the industry needs to show students as early as junior high school that "construction is a viable career path," says Sam Hassoun, director of the West Sacramento-based California Construction Education and Research Foundation, an arm formed by the Associated General Contractors of California to promote construction education. "At the high school level, we've sometimes already missed them," he says.

After graduation, companies and schools need to continue fostering cooperative education, according to Hassoun. Workers are not always up to date on new contracting methods and technology.

"We need more of a marriage between technology and construction," Hassoun says. He encourages more exchange between academic faculty and industry experts, with contractors occasionally teaching college courses and continuing education workshops.

Click here for the U.S. Construction Schools
(Note:These listings were published in ENR’s Oct. 29, 2001, issue. Data may have changed since the initial publication.)

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