Sections Supplements

Building a Larger Pipeline

New Program at STCC Expected to Yield More Construction Managers
Ted Sussmann

Ted Sussmann says STCC’s new program in Construction Management should help ease a shortage of qualified help now challenging the industry.

The bulletin board outside the Civil Engineering Technology office at Springfield Technical Community College tells the story — or at least a good part of it.

It is nearly covered with letters from construction companies — the letterheads reveal some of the best-known firms in the region — all looking for help. The specific needs vary, but most operations are looking for individuals versed in what is known as construction management — the art and science of coordinating the various aspects of a specific project, from scheduling to tracking equipment rentals.

There is a consistent shortage of such individuals, said Joe Marois, president of South Hadley-based Marois Construction — one of the firms now posting job openings on that bulletin board — and for a number of reasons. Chief among them is a discernable shift in opinion about construction as a career, he said, adding that more young men and women are looking instead at the technology and health care sectors, among others.

“People are migrating to the less-physical fields,” said Marois, adding that, by doing so, individuals may be overlooking some fairly attractive career options in construction, ones with starting salaries of $40,000, $50,000, or more. The process of changing perceptions and attracting more people to the field requires exposure to the industry and an understanding of the opportunities it presents, said Marois, who is among those expressing optimism about a recently launched program at STCC that is expected do all that and thus put more talent in the construction pipeline.

An associate’s degree option in Construction Management completed its first semester of operation in May. There are just a handful of students in that program at present, said Ted Sussmann, chair of the school’s Civil Engineering and Architectural Technology program. But that number could grow to 20 or more in the future, and if it does, more matches can be found for the jobs posted on the bulletin board.

“Right now, there are about twice as many jobs as people to fill them,” he explained. “Look at the board — just about every construction company in the area is on there; everyone is looking for help, and right now I have to tell people, ‘sorry, everyone’s placed.’”

This issue, BusinessWest looks at what is becoming a fairly acute shortage of construction managers in the region, and how the STCC program may help close the gap.

Hammering out the Details

A quick look at the some of the required courses in the Construction Management program — ‘Business Law,’ ‘Principles of Management,’ and ‘Organizational Behavior’ have been added to such staples as ‘Construction Estimating’ and ‘Reinforced Concrete Analysis’ — reveal both the nature of the work such individuals now handle and also how construction has changed in recent decades.

“Everything is much more complex now; there is much more regulation of the business and a lot more paperwork,” said Marois. “It takes a talented individual to keep a job flowing properly.”

Jim Whalen, chief engineer for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons in Holyoke agreed. And in addition to the mounting paperwork, employment-law matters, and other bureaucratic issues, he said, construction itself is becoming increasingly elaborate and complex in terms of design and materials.

Citing the new federal courthouse taking shape on State Street in Springfield, an O’Connell project, as one example, he said the facility is curved, built almost in a semi-circle, posing a host of challenges for sub-contractors and the construction managers and project supervisors who coordinate their work.

“Everyone is using computers to make buildings much more complex, and not only in aesthetics and structure,” said Whalen, adding that while the courthouse is an extreme case, construction at all levels is more complicated and technology-driven, making it more difficult to attain the skills required of a project manager through merely on-job-training, as was possible years ago.

And this phenomenon coincides with that shift among young people toward less-physical careers, as Marois described them.

This confluence of challenges was part of the motivation for the Construction Management program, said Sussmann, adding that it was a blend of needs — construction companies looking for help and area residents seeking new career opportunities — that accelerated the process.

Sussmann said graduates of the new program will likely move on to four-year degrees in Construction Management, a step that is nearly a pre-requisite for employment with firms like O’Connell, which handles mostly large, complex projects. But the new option is not merely preparation for a baccalaureate degree.

Indeed, the advisory board that gauged need for the program and offered insight on its scope and direction, insisted that it provide “employable skills,” said Sussmann. “These graduates will be workforce-ready.”

And graduates of the two-year program should find ample job opportunities in this region and beyond, said Whalen. He noted that while most project managers at O’Connell have four-year degrees, the company has, when need and supply have dictated it, hired those with an associate’s. Meanwhile, each project the firm handles has ‘assistant managers,’ a job for which most STCC graduates would be qualified, and many smaller firms in this region are hiring individuals with two years of schooling — usually in civil engineering — for managers’ positions.

“There’s a need for project managers at all the various levels of construction,” he said. “Programs like this are valuable because they expose people to the construction industry, and they can see that, while this is demanding work, it’s also very rewarding.”

Exposure to the field is one of the main goals for the new degree program, said Sussmann, who, like Whalen and Marois, believes more young people would pursue work in construction if they fully understood the number and variety of opportunities now available.

To shed some light on the subject, Whalen and others at O’Connell hosted a series of visits to the courthouse site late last winter and spring. The visits, which featured discourse on the various stages of the project and the challenges involved with keeping the $55 million venture on time and on budget, was required of Construction Management and Civil Engineering Technology students, but some were also attended by others at the college.

The initial courthouse visit and the press it generated produced spikes in both interest and applications for the program, said Sussmann, noting that through such events, some advertising in construction industry journals, and news stories about the construction field and job opportunities in it, he expects steady enrollment in the Construction Management option.

Which is good, because both Marois and Whalen see no quick or easy resolution to the current need for qualified people.

“Looking down the road, I don’t see this problem solving itself,” said Marois. “In all the trades, it’s getting harder and harder to find people.”

Paving the Way

As he pulled one posting off the top of the bulletin board outside his office, Sussmann said the company requesting help hasn’t stopped with that letter.

“They’ve called at least three times … they really need someone,” he said, adding that he would like to help the firm but currently can’t connect it with a graduate or current student — they all either have a job or need more education to meet the need.

If the Construction Management program succeeds in putting more talent into the pipeline, as its organizers and area construction company owners hope and expect, then the phone may eventually ring less often.

But for now and the foreseeable future, need will outstrip supply — and that adds up to both challenge and opportunity for the region and its construction community.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]