Contractors are acutely aware of the need to attract new talent to the construction industry. In response to calls to recruit and develop a new generation of staff members, many firms are bolstering the efforts of colleges and universities to steer more candidates toward construction careers.
While scholarships and grants help to meet the needs of individual students, some firms, associations and individuals have made a broader investment in construction and engineering education by funding endowed chairs and professorships at U.S. colleges.
These endowments create a range of opportunities. Some help to fund existing faculty for research, student site visits and guest lecturers. Other endowments create new faculty positions and programs.
The Beavers Charitable Trust, which currently has an endowment of nearly $20 million, began its endowed professorship initiative in 2007. Today, it funds nine endowed professorships, including positions at Texas A&M University, University of Washington, Arizona State University, Oregon State University, Long Beach State University, University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University and California State University Chico.
Over the years, the Beavers has funneled millions of dollars in scholarship money from its members to students at colleges nationwide.
Dave Woods, executive director of the Beavers trust, says the initiative aims to increase student exposure to heavy-civil construction through new or enhanced teaching, inside and outside the classroom. “Typically, a civil program tends toward design and construction management in [vertical] building,” Woods says. “This is leaning against the ship in a way.”
Woods says that while scholarship funding will continue, the Beavers sees its endowed professorships as another way to help promote heavy construction. “With scholarships, we can touch a couple of lives,” he says. “But if you get the right person in front of a whole class as an evangelist for heavy construction, you can have a much bigger impact.”
Stephen Muench, who serves as the Tom and Marilyn Draeger-The Beavers Charitable Trust Associate Professor at the University of Washington College of Engineering, says the Beavers endowment allowed the school to significantly increase its construction training. Out of 36 tenure-track professors, Muench says that only four teach construction, and those courses are limited. Muench was hired as a professor in 2004 and named to the endowed professorship in 2011. He says endowment funds can cover the costs of many nontraditional classroom activities, such as site visits, guest speakers and research by graduate students.
“This [endowment] really gave me—and all of us—a lot of resources to be able to do what we needed to do to improve the students’ exposure to construction engineering,” Muench says. “The Beavers are looking to help support and maintain the next generation of construction engineers they see working [in the future] for heavy-civil companies.”
Muench says he doesn’t need a “hard sell” to get students interested in construction, noting that the classes already are strongly advised.
“What we’ve found is that, if you give the students exposure and they understand what it’s about, there is a self-selected group that really likes building things and large structures,” he adds. “They like putting things together and figuring problems out. It’s not hard to show people these things and find out that they are interested. I have the resources to do that now.”
Tom Draeger—a retired construction executive who, along with his wife, Marilyn, partially funded the University of Washington endowment—says he got involved because he saw it as a way to effect change in education. “When you give out a scholarship, you don’t have any assurance that anyone will go into construction,” Draeger says. “This is a way to get more people interested in going into the construction industry.”
Allan Hauck, chairman of the American Council for Construction Education and department head of the Construction Management Dept. at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, says the benefits can be significant for endowed chair and professorship positions, but they come at a cost.
The average investment return on endowments, used to fund the chair or professor, is around 4% annually, he says. The size of the endowment depends on the need. For example, it might require as much as a $3-million endowment to generate enough interest income for the annual salary of a full professor. However, if the endowment provides, instead, a stipend or a pool of money for program-related needs, the initial gift could be less.
“The challenge we find is that corporate philanthropy tends to run out at about a half-million dollars,” Hauck says. “What’s interesting about the Beavers is that it’s a group of contractors coming together to fund it.”
A large component of many endowed chair positions comes from industry involvement. Mark Russell, who has worked as the Associated General Contractors endowed chair in construction management and construction engineering at the University of New Mexico since 2013, says he offers a link between students and contractors. “It’s the perfect combination of academics and industry,” he notes.
Russell says his industry experience factors heavily into academic work. He served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a civil engineering corps officer “building bases around the world.” He then worked at URS for four years before going to graduate school at the University of Florida.
Today, in addition to his connection with the AGC of New Mexico Building Branch, Russell serves on the board of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico. He also works part-time as a sustainability consultant. “I can work on projects and go back to the students to tell them what’s really going on in the industry these days,” he says. “I’ve become the industry link for the department.”
At Marquette University, an industry endowment helped to create the school’s construction-engineering program. The $5-million donation came from Jim McShane, CEO of the McShane Construction Co., and his wife, Kelly. Both are 1968 Marquette University graduates.
Mark Federle, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Marquette’s OPUS College of Engineering, was named the McShane chair in construction engineering eight years ago. Federle was previously chief information officer for The Weitz Co., Des Moines, for nine years.
He says one of the biggest advantages of the endowment is that it has allowed him the freedom to fund department needs as they arise, such as site visits, student competitions and guest lecturers. “There is no fighting over budgets,” Federle says. “I don’t have to call contractors and ask them to support an activity and then call them back in a few weeks for another activity. The funds are available as needed.”
Jeff Wilkes, the heavy-civil endowed chair in construction management at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, also uses his industry experience to guide students. Before joining CSU, Wilkes worked for Granite Construction, Fluor and Archer Western.
Wilkes estimates that 80% of CM graduates from CSU are focused on commercial work, with the remaining 20% divided into heavy civil, residential and industrial. “The goal is that more students will be interested in heavy civil,” he says. “Creation of the endowed chair gives me the ability to focus on more things that are heavy civil-related.”
Beyond developing coursework, Wilkes leads construction competition teams and makes students aware of internships in the heavy-civil arena. The son of two educators, Wilkes says that, although he could probably make more money if he stayed in construction, education is his calling.
“It’s in my blood,” he says.