You only need to look at the changing skyline of many major cities to know that the construction industry is booming. But not everything is going according to plan on the nation’s construction sites. While U.S. construction firms should be focusing all of their attention on tackling the housing shortage and reimagining and reshaping the buildings in which we live and work, there is a very real problem facing the industry. Massive skills shortages mean that many construction projects simply struggle to get off the drawing board. This means one thing for anyone considering a career in construction — there is an amazing opportunity out there — but first, you have to get the right qualifications.
Construction industry opportunities don’t all revolve around the heavy manual labor normally associated with construction work. Construction management offers an opportunity to build a new career using your brain rather than your brawn.
We spoke with Dirk Epperson, academic program director for the construction engineering program at National University, about what exactly construction management is, why the industry is facing such a heavy skills shortage, and the opportunities available for graduates with an online construction management degree.
What is Construction Management?
According to Epperson, construction management deals with the entire process of construction, from design all the way through to concept and the actual realization of a project. The construction manager’s role is vital onsite during the construction phase to make sure that things are flowing well, to organize and cut out the waste that is prevalent in the construction phases, and to ensure projects are delivered on time, on budget, and on specification.
“Engineers and architects design projects but sometimes they only see those projects in the 2D world,” says Epperson. “It takes people who have actual experience in constructing projects to do a constructability review. A constructability review on a project can lead to huge cost savings down the road because these specialists understand what it takes to build something. They understand the materials that are readily available in those areas. They also understand the longevity of the lifecycle of the products that are being installed for long-term maintenance.”
Tackling the Skills Shortage
“Construction management is an exciting realm to be in, especially because we have so much construction going on,” says Epperson. “There is a perceived housing shortage in the US, so there are a lot of real-life examples for the need for construction managers, but the reality is that we have an overwhelming number of people retiring out of the industry. The biggest problem that we face is re-populating those positions with new people coming in to take up those places.”
Part of this problem is caused by the public’s perception of what a career in the construction industry looks like.
“I think that there is a stigma behind construction that you’ve got to get down and get your hands dirty,” says Epperson. “That’s not appealing to a lot of people, but the reality in the field of construction management can be a lot different from those perceptions.”
Construction management offers a wide range of opportunities depending on your interests and skill set.
“It’s a really good field to be in because it offers a range of entry levels, and caters for a range of abilities and experiences,” says Epperson. “Some professionals will be doing a lot of paperwork. Some will be out in the field. Some will be updating the plans while the construction is going on to reflect the actual site conditions. The opportunities are wide open.”
A High-Tech Industry
Epperson is keen to highlight how technology is changing the way construction projects are managed.
“In a world like today things are moving more digital,” says Epperson. “So it’s exciting to get into a lot of these things.”
The use of drone technology is just one example of advancements in the industry that are driving efficiencies on construction sites and bringing the industry into the digital age.
“I work with a couple of construction managers who are drone pilots,” says Epperson. “So they get to fly UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and they go through and scan the area with the drone. It’ll take photographs and turn them into a 3D image where we can calculate volumes so we could see how much earthwork has been moved at a given time and we can say, ‘OK that mound used to be 100 cubic yards and they added to it and now it’s gone from a 100 to 400 cubic yards, so we can bill them for 300 cubic yards of additional import.’”
According to Epperson, the technology is growing daily. “We manage all of our projects using cloud-based software. These are the things that we teach at National University so that at the end of the day, students walk out of the program ready to hit the ground running.”
Online Construction Management Degree Program
The high-tech world of construction management fits neatly in with National University’s ground-breaking online degree programs which Epperson believes perfectly prepares students for work in the field following graduation.
“Teaching construction management online is really no challenge,” says Epperson. “I see it as an opportunity because, in today’s growing world, it is all about being online.”
Epperson compares the ease of teaching construction management online with the ease of conducting the interview to write this article.
“I’m having the discussion about this blog post online, right now, using web-conferencing software; if needed, the interviewer could share their screen with me and I could share my screen with them.” Says Epperson. “I do construction meeting updates in this very same way every week. It’s just part of the way the world is going and so being able to teach a class online, that’s the easy part because that’s the technology we have to embrace, that’s the technology that makes the world go around, and that’s the direction we are all going in. So taking a class, in the same manner, is only preparing you to run a meeting later on, or to learn on the job. I don’t see this as a challenge. I don’t see this as an obstacle. I see this as an opportunity to embrace the technology that’s really helping us.”
The technology used in the industry doesn’t have to be cutting edge. Even the everyday smartphone can help a construction manager to deliver a project on time and on budget.
“It’s all about eliminating waste,” says Epperson. “I’ve run projects remotely and have inspectors call me on Facetime with their iPhone and say, ‘Hey we have a problem’ and I’m like ‘OK, show it to me’. They’ll walk up and point the camera right at the problem and we’ll talk about it and I’ll ask them some questions. That will save me from having to fly to the city and look at it and just turn around and fly back when the answer to the problem is more-than-likely just to buy a $10 part and fix it. I can look at it remotely and so it is very much part of what we do these days.”
No Experience Necessary
Thanks to the breadth of opportunity in the field, there is no typical student in National University’s construction management online degree program, and according to Epperson, most do not have prior experience in the construction industry.
“The majority of students in the construction management program are looking to start a new career,” says Epperson. “They are managers at sandwich shops. They are busing tables at restaurants. They are doing other types of work but they want to break out and into this industry.”
Epperson insists that the only prerequisite to getting your construction manager degree online is a willingness to learn. The opportunity to work with students who may have missed out on their university education after leaving high school is something Epperson is particularly proud of.
“It’s kind of a really cool thing to be able to teach some of these students who are going through the program about construction management and what it means for their careers in the future,” says Epperson.
That’s not to say that getting a little experience in the construction industry while studying for your online degree won’t help you develop your career following graduation.
“One of the things that we talk about is going out and getting an entry-level job or some kind of construction experience,” says Epperson. “It’s actually really good to have experience of actually doing the work and so from my standpoint those students who get out and swing a hammer and learn how to do a lot of the stuff while they are in school and working towards a degree are doing themselves a huge service because that experience comes in handy later on.”
Balancing study and work in the field takes real commitment but, according to Epperson, will be greatly rewarded following graduation.
“You might have to work a couple of jobs while you are doing it,” says Epperson. “If you are at a sandwich shop, and you are making so much money per year, it can be hard to leave that job to go to a super entry-level job, but sometimes adding an internship on top of your sandwich job, even if it’s only 20 hours a week, will really help you hit the ground running.”
Juggling Work, Study and Family Commitments
Epperson’s “tough love” advice about juggling work, study and family commitments comes from his own personal experiences.
“That’s something that I did as I was going through school,” says Epperson. “I had a family that I was supporting and I was working four other part-time jobs at the same time to make ends meet. One of my jobs I was an intern for a local city and I was able to get that construction experience that I needed to further my career so that when I did graduate, I was able to step into a role with experience and get a full-time job immediately.”
Even entry-level jobs in the construction industry offer a wide range of opportunities for students interested in following a career in construction management.
When I was very young, one of the jobs I got was on construction jobs pulling wire for low-voltage electrical companies,” says Epperson. “I would pull wire and crawl through attics and things like that. Just being around construction sites, gave me a huge leg up — but it’s not absolutely imperative that students do that type of thing.”
Epperson says that internships can also provide a great learning opportunity. “Interested students can also get an internship where they’re being the ‘grunt’ labor that makes photocopies, responds to requests for information(they call those RFIs), and just being the ‘gofer,’ if you will. But that’s OK! It’s experience. It’s necessary. If you show fortitude, innovation, and willingness to learn as an intern, you can bring on full projects yourself — so that’s exciting.”
Flexible 4-Week Courses
National University’s unique online rolling four-week class system is particularly attractive to students who have to balance work and family commitments with their studies.
The four-week courses allow students to focus on a single topic at a time. This creates a more accessible route to study than is offered in a traditional university setting where students would have to commit to taking three or four classes per semester.
All classes, study materials, and group activities are available online and can be accessed at any time. Students can study in the morning, evening, on weekends or even during work breaks from the comfort of their laptop, tablet device, or smartphone.
The flexibility of the rolling monthly classes also means that a student is never more than 30-days away from starting on their online degree program. And because the university doesn’t take extended breaks over the summer months and holiday periods, students can graduate much quicker than they would in a traditional university.
The rolling classes also create an opportunity for students to better manage their work, family, and other commitments by allowing them to take a break from their studies and quickly pick them up again at the student’s convenience.
Veteran Opportunities in Construction Management
There is one group of students in the online construction management degree program who are no strangers to fortitude, innovation, and willingness to learn. Epperson has nothing but praise for National University’s serving military and veteran students.
“They do an amazing job,” says Epperson.
Like their civilian counterparts, very few military students have any real construction experience and are drawn to the program primarily because of the opportunities it presents following retirement from military service.
“Previously, they could have been doing anything from loading bombs onto airplanes, to being infantrymen or communications specialists. It completely varies,” says Epperson. “We don’t get a lot of military people who have been doing construction specifically.”
But says Epperson, it’s an industry that appeals to a lot of different people and the opportunities are boundless. Every week, I get emails by the dozens about job openings throughout the country where they are trying to fill positions where there is a ton of retirement. It’s an industry where there is going to be a void. You put forth a little bit of effort and you’ll end up with a good job.”
You don’t just have to take Epperson’s word for the fact that a career in construction management is an amazing opportunity for anyone willing to apply themselves. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 44,800 new jobs created in construction management between 2016 and 2016. These jobs include positions such as construction executives, project managers, field engineers, planning and scheduling engineers, cost engineers, and cost estimators.
The earning potential is also very attractive, with median rates of pay in the sector coming in at $93,370 per year ($44.89 per hour). This compares with the national median wage of $38,640.
Job opportunities are widely distributed all over the United States. California has the highest population of construction managers in the country with more than 32,400 people employed in the field, earning a median annual wage of $117,770. East coast salaries are trending even higher, with a median wage of $145,400 in New Jersey, $132,750 in Rhode Island, and $131,950 in New York.
Alumni Success Stories
Epperson likes to maintain contact with his students after graduation and is always happy to learn how their careers in construction management are progressing.
“The last two years, I’ve had several students reach back to me and tell me where they are after they graduate,” says Epperson. “I have one who is now a level two inspector for a private engineering firm. I have another student who is now a construction manager overseeing resource deployment for a large construction management firm. He coordinates who is going to be working on what jobs at any given time.”
The speed at which new graduates find opportunities and progress in their careers is particularly rewarding for Epperson.
“There is a student who only recently graduated. He is now a construction manager/project manager with a large construction company, answering RFIs, reviewing change orders and creating change order logs. With all that going on, he’ll be able to gain more and more experience and move up within the company. These are all full-time, benefited jobs that are well paid and there are many other success stories.”
Build Yourself a New Career in Construction Management
If you want to aim high in life and build a new career beyond your current horizons, an online degree in construction management could lay the foundations for new opportunities. For more information or to arrange a conversation with one of our academic advisors about how you could study for your construction management degree online please visit the program page on our website.