As Construction Booms, So Do New Jobs College students -- and their parents -- could be forgiven for not knowing about a major called "Construction Management." But construction -- roughly 5 percent of the nation's economy -- is booming. And insiders say the industry is sorely in need of educated and trained managers.
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As Construction Booms, So Do New Jobs

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As Construction Booms, So Do New Jobs

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for business news.

More schools are now offering degrees in construction management. This spring as more people graduate from these programs, most are likely to be hired quickly and be paid well. That's because the construction industry is booming. It accounts for roughly 5 percent of the entire economy. But insiders say it's been decades behind other industries when it comes to having highly educated and trained managers running companies. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Workers are hoisting and welding giant steel I-beams into place in an old factory in East Providence, Rhode Island. The building is being converted into a call center for Bank of America. Tony Mergita(ph) is the project manager here with Gilbane Building Company.

Mr. TONY MERGITA (Gilbane Building Company): We're retrofitting the existing steel. We're actually--you can see some of the ironworkers working here now. We've added approximately 400 tons of steel to this building to support all of the equipment that will go on the roof.

(Soundbite of equipment being moved)

ARNOLD: Over the next few months, Mergita will be managing hundreds of skilled trades workers on the job here, crews installing gas pipes, sprinklers, electrical systems, running phone lines. Mergita has on his computerized schedule nearly a thousand different jobs to be done here, and for making sure they're being done properly, safely, on time and in the right order, the 29-year-old Mergita makes good money.

Mr. MERGITA: My compensation is in the $100,000 range.

ARNOLD: Mergita didn't work his way up the company ladder from laborer to manager, the way it used to be. He went to a little-known school called the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston where he got a bachelor's degree in construction management. Dozens of schools are now offering similar programs. The degree prepares you to manage large projects or to run smaller finish carpentry or homebuilding businesses.

Professor TOM TADDEO (Wentworth Institute of Technology): So let's grab our chalk line here ...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of chalk line being pulled)

Prof. TADDEO: And somebody can snap that chalk line in the middle.

ARNOLD: At Wentworth's campus in Boston, Professor Tom Taddeo is teaching his freshman Building Methods(ph) lab class. Today they're learning how a good contractor goes about building a concrete wall, so they're banging together a series of wooden and steel panels to pour the concrete into.

Prof. TADDEO: What we should do is to work on the outside wall here from that corner down to the end, OK. Look at your plan. That's the 16-foot wall.

ARNOLD: This is not a trade school. These students are getting bachelor's degrees and most are college-age and living on campus, but they need to learn how to do construction in order to supervise and manage it. Their first two years the students go to lecture classes and labs like this one, then starting in the junior year they do two semesters of internships, hired on as paid employees with construction firms.

(Soundbite of paper rustling)

Ms. KATE THOMAS(ph) (Student): Like, for example--let's see--this is a wall right here, wall types, dependent on the fire rating that's necessary, like around...

ARNOLD: Twenty-year-old Wentworth College student Kate Thomas is flipping through a thick sheaf of floor plans at Payton Construction in Boston where she's doing her internship. She went to school at Wentworth to study architecture, but after hearing and learning about the construction management major, she switched into it.

Ms. THOMAS: It was different than architectural engineering in that it was really like a mixture of business and communication and technology, and the technical aspect of the construction as well. It sounded a lot more intriguing to me. And also it's great because it sets you up in that it gives you such a broad area of knowledge that you could go out and someday start your own business.

ARNOLD: Thomas is taking accounting, economics, a class called Construction Finance(ph). On an average day of classes she might go to English, physics and then on to learn about structural steel or how to calculate cost estimates to bid on building jobs. Wentworth professors say 100 percent of these students have full-time jobs in construction firms within a few months of graduating, earning a median salary of $46,000 a year right out of school.

Mike Kupferman oversees the construction management major at Wentworth.

Mr. MIKE KUPFERMAN (Wentworth Institute of Technology): There's almost a bit of a feeding frenzy because many of the construction companies, small and large, are in need for these people, are in need for construction managers, and we're not producing them fast enough.

ARNOLD: In response, the school's been expanding the major.

Mr. KUPFERMAN: A year ago we brought in about 65 undergraduates into the construction management program. This past fall that number jumped to 130-plus. It doubled. And we expect again record-breaking applications as we see them.

ARNOLD: That's been happening at similar programs across the country. Meanwhile, the number of schools offering or launching construction management degree programs has tripled in the past 15 years to 78 schools. Of course there are construction boom times and down times, and while things are humming right now in the commercial sector and the very hot home construction sector, that won't last forever. But Kupferman isn't worried. He points to a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers on the nation's infrastructure.

Mr. KUPFERMAN: The buildings, the highways, the transit systems, the water treatment plants in the United States, and their estimate is that the condition on this report card of all of those put together gets a grade of D. It's going to take on the order of $1.6 trillion of investment over the next five years. That's job security for young people who are now going to school for construction management.

ARNOLD: And some think a lot more students ought to be going into this field. Michael Holland spent 30 years in the industry. He now helps to run the American Council for Construction Education, which accredits these programs at colleges. He says a lot of kids just don't know that they can go to college for construction management, and he thinks that most parents and guidance counselors aren't taking the time to find out more about it.

Mr. MICHAEL HOLLAND (American Council for Construction Education): This is the problem that's endemic in the construction industry. People think that contractors are people that just dig ditches, run around in a pickup truck with a shovel. High school counselors don't understand that the construction industry is a huge industry that provides a variety of professional growth opportunities, and so the construction industry doesn't get the respect that it needs and deserves.

ARNOLD: Holland says that's especially too bad for those kids who are smart but who just don't do so well in a structured classroom setting. Professors at Wentworth say there are a lot of young people who were B and C students in high school but who really thrive in this more hands-on field where they get to work outside and build things.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

MONTAGNE: You can see a construction management class, and links to learn about the field are at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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