The changing landscape of construction management

New bachelor programs in construction are turning out grads who can run a job site
Prajakta Dhopade
Student of the George Brown College Construction Management program. (GEORGE BROWN)

Presented by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour

Student of the George Brown College Construction Management program. (GEORGE BROWN)
Student of the George Brown College Construction Management program. (GEORGE BROWN)

Not too long ago, it might have taken someone starting in the construction industry 25 years to climb the ladder to management. In 2015, that career path is obsolete. With a retirement bubble on the horizon and ever more technological innovation, the industry needs construction managers who are ready to go.

“Our industry, as maybe a lot of people know, is slow to change,” says Paul Charette, former CEO of Bird Construction and an advocate of education in building sciences. “We ought to be able to get students graduating from our post-secondary education system job-ready. It shouldn’t take 25 years to learn the ins and outs of a construction company.”

In the next 10 years, the industry will lose about 250,000 workers to retirement. According to data from BuildForce Canada, it will need to attract a total of 322,000 new workers in the next decade to meet demand.

The academic world, at every level, is hustling to accommodate it. The industry is moving so fast that “there is no room for good mentoring” on the job, says Clint Kissoon, chair of George Brown College’s school of construction management and trades.

He says the starting salary for those with a construction-management degree is around $40,000 a year—$50,000 for those with experience. Depending on the size of the company, it could increase to $90,000 in subsequent years. Senior managers can easily earn over $100,000.

Bachelor degrees in construction management or building science are offered at George Brown College, Algonquin College in Ottawa, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Vancouver, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary and Red River College in Winnipeg. You can get a master’s in building science at Ryerson University in Toronto, while the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto have a master’s for engineering grads who want to specialize in construction.

While BCIT’s program is only open to applicants with at least two years of post-secondary education, and NAIT’s degree is an additional two years for those who have completed their construction engineering technology diploma, the four-year programs are open to anyone and tend to attract students who are strong in math.

Students in the bachelor programs are being snapped up by co-op employers or recruited at job fairs, securing positions as site supervisors and junior superintendents before they even get to convocation. According to Charette, these programs have nearly a 100 per cent employment rate. “We almost fight over them because there’s such great demand.”
George Brown and Red River College are the pioneers of the four-year bachelor degrees in construction management, launched in 2005 and 2010 respectively. Both are recognized by the Canadian Construction Association’s Gold Seal program and provide points toward professional certification.

Charette, a philanthropist, had a hand in creating both. A graduate of Red River College’s civil technology program, Bird Construction hired him as a project coordinator in 1976, and he rose through the ranks to become CEO in 1991; he is now chair of the board or directors. He helped shape the program at both colleges and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to endowment funds to help students. He and his wife Gerri also donated $1 million to Red River this year to establish the Manitoba applied research chair in sustainable construction, an amount matched by the province.

The curricula for both schools were developed with input from industry partners, and, as a result, they both include co-op placements and an opportunity to work on real-world problems through applied research projects. Red River offers three six-month work terms, while George Brown has a mandatory 10-week work-placement semester between third and fourth year for its 120-student-a-year program.

Students learn management and business skills, and they revel in the fieldwork. “I’ve gotten positions over people who had their master’s because I had those hands-on experiences,” says Miyoko Oikawa, a 2015 George Brown graduate. She scored a research position at Building Science Consulting in Waterloo, Ont., while she was still finishing her degree.

Taylor Tollefson, a classmate of Oikawa’s, is a former Western University political science student who worked construction one summer while attending school and fell in love with the satisfaction of creating something. “You show up and there’s nothing there, and when you leave at the end of the day, there’s a bit more to look at,” he says. He left Western in 2010 to continue working in construction and enrolled at George Brown in 2011 after hearing how heavily recruited it was. “I knew that . . . a degree is important in this day and age and I wanted to get some education behind something I really liked.” What he took away from his bachelor in construction management wasn’t so much the technical skills as the soft skills. He started his own construction business, North Star Building Group, near the end of his final year.

Josh Wells got a job right out of Red River’s construction management program as a junior superintendent for Akman Construction, working on the college’s new 100,000-sq.-foot Skilled Trades and Technology Centre. It will boost trades education at Red River and may lead to the expansion of the 28-seat construction management program.
When Wells enrolled in 2011, there was no waiting list. Now, only Manitoba residents can apply to first year, and there are enough people on the waiting list to fill next year’s quota.

The money being poured into research indicates the industry’s importance. As part of the federal government’s April announcement of $40 million to support applied research at colleges, Algonquin College’s Construction Research Centre, which opened in January, received $2.3 million from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC); George Brown received two grants totalling $4.3 million to support research partnerships with industry on building information modelling and smart buildings, while Red River received $1.75 million for a new Centre for Building Envelope Performance. The building envelope refers to the physical barrier between the inside and outside of a building, which is critical when it comes to comfort, not to mention energy consumption.

“Energy codes are changing, so there’s continuous need to . . . upgrade and look at what we’re doing in that area,” says Nancy Wheatley, dean of the school of construction and engineering technologies at Red River. “The more current you stay, the more employable you are.” At the bachelor level, Red River College students participate in applied research as part of their degree. Students taking SAIT’s four-year bachelor of science construction project management are required to do a capstone research project that pairs them with industry sponsors to solve real-world problems. Students graduate from these programs with both managerial know-how and expertise in construction research.
“Through applied research, they’re learning the critical-thinking skills they need to come into our industry and challenge our management to say, ‘Why don’t we do things this way?’ or, ‘Have we ever thought about doing this?’” Charette says.

While architects and designers have moved to computer modelling, the construction business still relies on the iconic rolls of paper plans. Though building information modelling exists, few companies use it, to Charette’s dismay. These new grads, plus some applied research, can change that.
“We need that fresh approach,” Charette told an audience at the annual meeting of Colleges and Institutes Canada in Winnipeg in May. “Our industry needs to get involved. We still essentially make concrete the way it was made 3,000 years ago.”

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