Twenty-five years after the first college-level program earned legitimacy through accreditation, construction education is feeling the highs and lows of maturity. A discipline that not many ever thought could be an academic subject now is offered at as many as 170 universities and officially recognized at more than 60. When Vernon L. Hastings began teaching construction at Arizona State University in 1973, the school's vice president of academic research told him that it was not an academic subject and "should not be on a university campus," Hastings recalls. Today, "C-schools" are producing thousands of graduates each year and employers are scooping them up, as well as pumping more company time and money into school curricula, equipment and facilities.
But construction education still copes with painful realities–that the discipline is an academic stepchild to larger progams on campus, that it lacks financial strength and its graduates technical depth, and that its welter of titles can leave students, recruiters and guidance counselors confused and uninterested.
ENR first chronicled the rise of the construction education phenomenon more than 20 years ago (ENR 5/28/81 p. 24). The magazine is now debuting its first comprehensive survey of the discipline. It highlights key criteria–from size of enrollment and number of graduates to faculty training, program accreditation and scholarship pool. Survey results, which are provided in accompanying tables (see link below), were compiled based on responses received from 88 schools. Interviews with students, graduates, professors and construction executives from across the U.S. round out the picture.
IN DEMAND. California State University, Sacramento, offers a glimpse of the promise and pressure in construction education today. "We can't turn out graduates fast enough," says Donald W. Nostrant, a professor of construction management. Entry-level enrollment is up 40% there in the last two years since a program name change from "engineering technology" to "construction management." More students are coming directly from high school, rather than from construction trades. But the influx is taxing the school's limited staff and resources. With just 2.5 equivalent full-time faculty, CSU Sacramento's 110 student program makes do in just one classroom with 32 chairs and 16 workstations. Academic salaries also are not keeping pace, Nostrant contends.
The school's 17 seniors set to graduate in December have felt the academic scorn of engineering majors with whom they share some classes. "We are treated as second-class students by civil engineers," says senior Christopher L. Andicochea. "But the funny thing is, once we enter the work force, we're the ones hiring them." Several seniors negotiated starting salaries of $10,000 more than the going rate for civil engineering grads and, in the uneasy economic times since Sept. 11, only one had an offer revoked. Nostrant notes that Kiewit Pacific Co., a West Coast unit of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., recently attended a meeting of the school's Construction Management Student Association to lure next semester's graduates. "The company made a very definite point that it had a lot of work on the books and was recruiting persons for careers, not just for a particular job," Nostrant says.
ENR's 88 construction schools enrolled about 17,500 students in the 2000-2001 school year and graduated more than 3,400 seniors as of the Spring 2001 semester, according to survey data. Many grads commanded competitive starting salaries–as high as $55,000 at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Recruiters were a high-profile presence at universities, with some schools reporting that more than 200 organizations visited construction programs during 2000-2001, the survey says.Click here to view data about construction enrollments.
But if students are high-profile when they graduate, they may be hard to find beforehand. Bachelor-level construction programs exist in a gamut of colleges, from engineering and technology to applied science, architecture and business. Titles range from construction management and building science to architectural design and construction and construction technology. The Associated Schools of Construction, an umbrella group of C-schools, lists 69 different program titles among its 96 members. The confusion can diminish programs in the eyes of university students, professors and administrators. "Many do not recognize the value of the four-year degreed ‘constructor' or construction graduate," says M. Lee Niles, director of the University of Arkansas' construction management program.
PERCEPTIONS. Historically, many construction managers were former craft workers without college degrees or engineering licenses, observes S. Narayan Bodapati, 66, a licensed structural engineer and Ph.D. who chairs the construction program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. "The perception is that we are not professional like other departments," he concedes, citing the industry's lack of emphasis on research and Ph.D.'s. Last year, construction spent less than one-half of 1% of its $820 billion in U.S. revenue on research, Bodapati points out.
Many outsiders associate construction education with vocational education. "Most construction programs have to prove that they are indeed a viable professional discipline," observes Ben O. Uwakweh, who heads the University of Cincinnati's construction science department. That perception contributes to the profession's difficulty in attracting top-quality students. A University of Cincinnati study contends that construction education seems to appeal mainly to "predominantly middle range students." Lacking cachet, the discipline also fails to attract many minorities and women. Minorities comprise about 5%, and women about 7%, of total C-school undergraduate enrollment, Uwakweh estimates. ENR's survey shows that women comprised less than 10% of 2000-2001 graduates.
Some women construction students relish their minority status. "I think being a female gives me more opportunities," says Jayme Newman, a senior in Boise State University's construction management program. It graduated just one woman student last year out of a class of 18. "Companies are looking to get away from all the white males. It gives me an edge on the men," she adds. "I've run into a few men that say I don't belong in construction. But I say, ‘let me work on your crew for a day and I can show you what I can do for you.'"
COMMON SENSE. Andy Cooper and Darren Leafblad, who both graduated from Colorado State University's construction program in the early 1990s, dispute suggestions that construction education amounts to the learning of a pseudo-science. "I don't think it's the dumb people going into construction management," says Cooper. "I think it's those on a common-sense plane versus a technical plane." The two started as mechanical engineering majors before switching into the program.
"Physics and calculus killed me," explains Leafblad, a 1992 CSU graduate and now a purchasing agent at a custom-residential contractor in Golden, Colo. "The more that I touch stuff, the more that I learn. When I read it from a book, it takes me longer to get the concept."
Once in the construction program, both men thrived in the presence of faculty with industry experience. "It wasn't purely book knowledge, they were talking ‘real life,'" says Cooper, a 1993 CSU graduate and now a vice president of a masonry subcontractor in Englewood, Colo. Looking back, both men say they received a good education in estimating, scheduling and project management, but discovered only after graduating that they still needed a much wider perspective. CSU's accounting course "almost killed me," says Leafblad, "but I don't think we got nearly enough business for running a company."
WIDE RANGING. The range of subjects in C-school curricula make it tough to cover everything relevant. This includes contracts, law, safety, personnel, risk and financial management, information technology, project management, electrical and mechanical systems, cost accounting, scheduling and more. Traditionally, construction education consists of separate instructional units on estimating, scheduling, contracts and the like. But more and more, observers urge the adoption of a more multidisciplinary educational approach by integrating functions across the curriculum to get students really thinking.
"I don't know if there are any other disciplines that require such a vast exposure to a number of different areas," says Craig D. Capano, director of the construction management program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. On the first day of an introductory class in construction methods and materials, freshmen watched curiously as he strode in to drop several items on a table: a 10-in.-dia roll of construction plans for a $20-million-or-so project, a construction specifications book 4 to 5 in. thick, a cell phone, a laptop computer and a hard hat. "Here are your tools. Build this building. Good-bye," he said, walking out the door. Capano returned shortly, to the relief of the class.
Other programs also emphasize more accountability and multidisciplinary thinking. "As a result of feedback from industry, we learned that our students were knowledgeable in the components of the industry, but were lacking the experience of how their knowledge could be applied to the total work experience," says William Strenth, assistant construction professor at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. In a senior year "capstone" course at the school, students ran a pseudo-construction company, managing a project from concept to close-out. They helped with design and construction of actual community projects such as an octagonal-shaped park shelter and a golf course restroom equipped for the handicapped. Industry professionals mentored the students and provided equipment and materials.
Steven G. Chamberlin, a 1985 construction management graduate and now president of Milwaukee-based CM firm CG Schmidt Inc., believes programs should adopt a "holistic" approach to give students more experience in balancing competing project variables. Chamberlin sees few indications of construction programs preparing students to keep pace with the increasing demands of design-build and interoperable information technologies. "Universities are really going to have to make some significant changes in the next two to five years, to keep pace with an industry that is changing as much as it has in the past century," he says. Otherwise, "We're going to become nothing more than a commodity. This isn't about adding a couple of courses."
Some construction academics agree. "We're not doing enough on the critical thinking side," says Southern Illinois' Bodapati. "Managing people, coordinating a response, implementing a solution on most projects, "is more difficult than solving a technical problem." With colleagues, he spends time teaching students the importance of tone, such as when writing a "demand" letter to a contractor about a schedule lapse or a soothing letter of explanation to a project owner.
Properly done, construction education teaches students how to strategize, coordinate and delegate, and how to recognize the need to call in experts for engineering advice. "You don't just sit and mimic what the instructor says," says CSU Sacramento senior Alba R. Diaz.
HANDS ON. Holistic construction education also depends heavily on learning outside the classroom. Field trips and case studies often require the presence and guidance of faculty with significant industry experience. In the construction engineering technology program at Montana State University, faculty employment criteria stipulate a master's or "equivalent"–meaning "an abundance of construction experience that is of a particularly high caliber," even without a graduate degree, explains program coordinator Michael Whelan.
Boise State student Newman values the school's weekly field trips and the "one long trip to a big city to visit four or five big jobsites. We combine field experience and book smarts to do well." Many schools encourage students to add internship or cooperative education programs to their academic experience, but less than half of ENR's surveyed schools require them for graduation. Most require three to five months on average, but the University of Cincinnati posts a significant 18-month cooperative education requirement. "We've had students whom we've kept from graduating because they didn't have the hours," says Stephen D. Schuette, head of Purdue University's Dept. of Building Construction Management. The program requires undergraduates to complete two summer internships totaling 800 hours. Schuette plans to revamp it to obtain a better fit between what students learn in class and what they apply on the job. Some programs insist on relevant work, with employer and student required to submit a job description in advance. At Northern Kentucky University, a student intern must e-mail a weekly work-log summary to a faculty coordinator, who in turn makes an on-site visit to discuss accomplishments.
INDUSTRY SUPPORT. Funding C-school enhancements is a challenge these days. The University of Florida and Arizona State University possess separately endowed CM programs, valued at $13 million and $10 million, respectively, but most other construction programs lack financial autonomy. Only 10 programs employ 10 or more full-time faculty; most rely on five or fewer, according to ENR's survey. Many struggle to convince university bureaucracies to allot them enough classroom space, laboratory equipment and faculty. As a result, the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo's 254-student construction program accepts fewer than half the students applying for admission. Click here to view data.
The construction industry funds some expansions. Thanks to industry donations plus funding from the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board, Niles and fellow faculty and students outfitted a 27-station computer lab and more at the University of Arkansas. Industry also endowed Niles' program with nearly $350,000 for scholarships.
William W. Badger, director of Arizona State's construction school, says that for every dollar he gets from the state, industry firms and school alumni donate $3. "It's the secret weapon used to keep university programs running," he says. Fundraising began in earnest in 1992 when the Del E. Webb Foundation provided $4 million to endow the school's program, named for the prominent developer. Now, 431 alumni own their own companies and contribute generously to scholarship funds and research assistanceships, Badger says. Joseph Phelps, retired CEO of Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Denver, last year gave $1.5 million to endow a faculty chair at Colorado State, specifying that the professor hired be a construction industry senior manager, company officials say.
More schools are forming strategic alliances with industry firms and groups. Fluor Corp., Alisa Viejo, Calif., has alliances with 10 construction management programs around the country that are close to key offices or have programs that dovetail with company needs. At Arizona State, 136 companies invest in the school through membership in its Alliance for Construction Excellence. "We act as a board of directors by helping to resolve issues, and giving guidance and advice," says J. Doug Pruitt, chairman of The Sundt Cos., Tucson. "If you value education you have to get in and participate."
There is no doubt that participants on both sides look upon their relationship as a business partnership. Schools "have a product and we're buying it down the road," says Mark Pendelton, president of Kitchell Corp., Phoenix. At Arizona State, Badger "asks what's working for us and what's not," says Pendelton. Hensel Phelps hires Colorado State professors during the summer, a practice that company Operations Manager Jerry Pault claims has resulted in curriculum adjustments.
Many academics don't want industry dictating content and curriculum. "We want advice and guidance," says John C. Mouton, former chairman of Auburn University's Dept. of Building Sciences in Alabama. But he admits that construction firms' involvement "gives us tremendous leverage on campus. The industry has tremendous financial influence and political clout in the state."
Some C-school faculty appreciate the support as they battle campus administrators and tenure review committee members who want more Ph.D.s. and better access to federal research dollars. Increasingly, university officials want to see evidence of research when making salary and promotion decisions. Many contractors, even some faculty, view such faculty requirements with disdain. "It's really a sick system," says Mouton, a former contractor and non-Ph.D.
Badger adds in a recent research paper entitled, "The U.S. Faculty Pipeline is Broken," that "the new salary structure for construction faculty is influenced by outside perceptions that the faculty are vocational educators rather than creators of knowledge regarding the construction process." The average salary of construction faculty, he points out, "falls 32% short of the national mean." Teaching assistants, part-time faculty and lecturers, as well as crossover candidates from other engineering disciplines, fill current faculty gaps.
CORE Johnston says engineering remains a key construction skill. (Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University)
ASSESSMENT. Norma Jean Andersen, an assistant professor in the construction program at Minnesota State University's Moorhead campus, defends the school's relationship with industry when academics in other departments dismiss it as pandering. "They can't comprehend why we incorporate employer surveys in our outcomes assessment," she says. "Our program depends on our interaction with industry. If we don't produce students that know estimating and scheduling, they're going to go to a program that does."
Presiding over the future of construction education curricula and standards are two accrediting organizations, the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The former emphasizes construction management and the latter covers programs focused on construction engineering. Some programs also are accredited by the National Association for Industrial Technology (NAIT).
ACCE members debate whether construction education remains a work in progress (ENR 8/6 p. 14). "The problem is, nobody has bothered to divine what the body of knowledge is," says James A. Rodger, president of the Associated Schools of Construction and head of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's construction department. But Robert Eastley, chairman of the construction management department at Michigan's Ferris State University, believes that "the body of knowledge is pretty well-defined."
Some observers worry that current accrediting standards may be diluted as ACCE moves to nearly double the number of schools it accredits to a total of 100 by 2010. "With most of the better programs already accredited, this more recent accreditation initiative has resulted in the addition of a proportionately larger number of semiprecious stones," notes Ernest W. Jones, construction education director of the Associated General Contractors. "Programs should not be allowed to grow where there is a lack of facilities and/or a shortage of qualified faculty to deal with the increased student numbers. Neither should accreditation be extended to programs that barely meet minimum accreditation standards."
National testing offers a way to assess construction education and construction graduates. "There are some schools that are minimally teaching the core, and they know it," says Cheryl Harris, executive director of the American Institute of Constructors in St. Petersburg, Fla. For the last five years, AIC has given eight-hour exams for Certification of Professional Constructors at universities across the U.S. But Harris declines to disclose test scores from individual schools because "I would lose all my test sites," she says.
While at least 22 of the 53 ACCE-accredited programs now require students to take the AIC exam, industry observers say construction education must continue to boost its stature as a profession. But too few industry firms are willing to participate in the effort, says Mark Benjamin, CEO of Morley Builders, Santa Monica, Calif., and vice chairman of ACCE's accreditation committee, "because the benefit is perceived as distant, because it's not going to help tomorrow's job or tomorrow's bid."