Future Work Force Gets in Gear. Civil engineering students from Rensselaer University visit a construction site in Albany, N.Y. Is there enough talent in the pipeline to meet industry’s needs? (Photo courtesy of Earth Tech/Carsten H. Floess)

"There is a lot of concern in industry for both civil and construction management firms," says Ken Williamson, department chair at Oregon State University’s college of engineering, in Corvallis. "Companies want to have a little better guarantee of their future work force."

As the economy declined several years ago, OSU’s intern level dropped, from more than 300 to about 200. Now that firms are hungry for new hires, the intern supply has climbed to 280 and the college expects it to continue rising, says Chris Bell, OSU’s associate engineering dean.

The hunt is on for talent as construction’s mission–and market–expand. The industry’s post-Katrina role has elevated its prominence and a recovering economy has many architects, engineering and construction firms in a hiring mode again as they plan for future workloads. Schools are pushing hard to meet demand and keep their programs in the forefront, but budget issues and faculty gaps are causing some shortfalls. Many are reaching out to industry for financial and educational support.

"We had to turn away 100 students who wanted to get into the program."
— Jim Smith, professor, Dept. of Construction Science, Texas A&M

"It’s true, we are turning away students because of our inability to handle the numbers," says Jim Smith, a professor in Texas A&M University’s Dept. of Construction Science. "We have 25 full-time faculty that handle about 600 undergraduates. We could grow the undergrad program to 1,000 students in a couple of years if we could add the core courses, but the university is budget constrained."

Louisiana State University officials are worried as the state faces increased financial pressure from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "We have had a hiring and spending freeze at the university since October," says James H. Gill Jr., who holds an endowed professorship in the College of Engineering. "We have a workhorse faculty, and are bringing in more adjuncts. Our first commitment is to turn out a quality student."

Gill admits that classes are larger than optimum. He says LSU is trying to reduce size by limiting the number of students taking key courses through prerequisites and insuring that all are construction management majors.

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    Smaller numbers may not play well to employers, who now absorb almost everyone with a diploma. "We’ve had 165 companies interviewing our 100 seniors graduating in December," says Larry Grosse, head of the construction management program at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. In the past, most have been locally based recruiting organizations. Now, they are national and include more engineering firms, developers, public agencies and even manufacturers, such as Pella Windows.

    The trend also is affecting two-year schools. "Enrollment has roughly doubled in the last four years for our applied science degree program," says Fred Hart, building construction program coordinator at Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Fla. "And we have had a 100% job placement for graduates during the same time." He notes increased interest from building trades workers and students with non-industry degrees "because they can make more money. We have not had to turn away students, but there is a possibility of that in the future."

    Adds Tom Burns, program chair for civil engineering technology at Cincinnati State Community College in Cincinnati: "Ten years ago everyone wanted to go into information technology. But with outsourcing, the luster has worn off. Construction is one career path that can’t be outsourced."

    Fewer Foreign Graduates

    Others are concerned about shrinking numbers of foreign-born students, especially at Master’s and Ph.D. levels. Post-9/11 visa restrictions on foreign-born students have eased, but the impact remains (ENR 12/6/04 p. 28).

    About 52% of the more than 600 graduate students attending Oregon State in 2004 were international. This year, its program has just over 500, with only 43% from foreign countries, says Bell. Educators now wonder about the impact of possible new restrictions being floated by the U.S. Defense and Commerce departments on sensitive research performed by foreign-born students, particularly those from China.

    Tech Help. An $18-million rehab of University of Northern Arizona engineering school boasts new technology that aids faculty and boosts learning. (Photo courtesy of university of Northern Arizona)

    Some schools are boosting technology to supplement instruction. The University of Northern Arizona added new high-tech tools to its 30-year-old engineering college building in Flagstaff as part of a recent $18-million remodeling and expansion.

    "It now has exposed mechanical and building systems so the building itself becomes a student learning tool," says Thomas Rogers, professor and past chairman of the school’s construction management department. "We set up classrooms with the latest technologies for long-distance deliveries. We are very lucky that technology has given our faculty members more time to pursue scholarly endeavors."

    Educators also are becoming more proactive as funding becomes tighter. "Where will we be leaders and where just players?" says Jeffrey Russell, chairman of the civil-environmental department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Everyone recognizes that we will get less money in public schools, but it’s not a cakewalk for the private ones either. It’s forcing us to be more strategic."

    t a time when demand for construction industry talent is at record highs, more engineering and construction programs struggle to produce results. The trend bodes well for graduates in job and salary offers but campus uncertainties are not leaving employers very happy about the future.