You know the situation. Looking through the job ads for a decent construction gig, time and time again you’ll see “Must have a bachelor’s degree,” or more specifically “Must have a construction management degree.”
Do you really need a construction management degree to get in, or get ahead, in 21st-century construction work?
A degree will take four years and cost anything from $28,00-$116,000 – and that’s for tuition alone. You’ve got to be fairly sure your future is in construction before you commit to that.
So do you really need to do it?
Construction work is an evolving field. Increasingly going forward, you will need a construction management degree to go beyond a low level in construction.
The process has already begun – in 2019, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported a 5.7% increase in four-year undergraduate programs in construction.
So arguably, you should just bite the bullet and get it over with?
Mmm, hang on. There are points to consider.
1. Employer demand
As we’ve said, construction is an industry undergoing significant change – and that change points towards an increasing need for a construction management degree. Right now, it’s not an industry-wide requirement.
But on the one hand, that’s the direction things are going, driven by employer demand. That means the timeline in which you can get work in construction management without a formal bachelor’s degree in the subject is shortening rapidly.
And on the other hand, even now, you know how many job ads demand a construction management degree.
If you don’t have one, and other candidates do, you’re putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to getting the job, simply because you don’t meet the employer’s criteria as well as those candidates with degrees do.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is already reporting a bachelor’s degree as the “typical entry-level educational requirement” for construction management roles.
Meanwhile, the extensive on-the-job training that was at least an equal passport into construction management in years gone by has been downgraded to a need for “moderate” on-the-job training. The message is clear.
The degree is a requirement. Having more on-the-job experience won’t usually counterbalance a resume that doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree on it.
Even if you run your own construction company, and have done so for a profitable decade without spending four years on a degree, increasingly even clients will want to know that their construction firm is run by someone who has the paperwork to prove their understanding and competence, along with any amount of on-the-job experience.
When you build a wall, if you use only bricks, your wall’s going to collapse the first time you lean on it.
On the other hand, if you use only mortar, you’re not going to have anything recognizable as a wall in the first place. You need both together to build a wall that will pass muster and do the job you want it to do.
Yes, absolutely, that’s a tortuous metaphor, but the point is valid. There’s no level on which classroom learning can replace on-the-job experience when it comes to construction. But that doesn’t necessarily make on-the-job experience the be-all and end-all of construction either.
If you go for classroom learning, you might be surprised at what it adds to your practical experience in terms of oversight, construction vision, efficiency, and up-to-date techniques on everything from invoicing to site safety.
If you intend to still be in construction ten or twenty years from now, getting the degree under your belt can help you maximize the effectiveness of your on-the-job experience, while adding whole layers to your understanding of project management (without the expensive business of learning by error)
3. Reno, not demo
So, we’re saying go for the degree?
We’re saying it’s a good option for the longer term, sure. But let’s hold our horses here, and consider another approach.
Say a wall of your house falls down. Do you knock the rest of the house down and start from scratch, or do you build a replacement wall?
Exactly. If you’re happy where you are, or you own your own construction company, why take the time out and have to start from scratch at the end of four expensive years once you have your degree under your belt? What do you gain from that?
If you already have years of on-the-job experience, consider looking at where your weaknesses are, and finding online courses to patch up those gaps, rather than committing to the whole four years and running into practically impressive debt.
Alternatively, if you’re thinking of starting your own construction company, consider the appeal of doing apprentice work for a while, to build up your practical skills base and get paid, giving you at least the beginnings of a degree fund.
4. Work/life balance
Most people have to work while they study – that’s nothing unusual. But there’s a difference between, say, working at a bookstore for eight hours then hitting the books, and working on a construction site for eight hours and then hitting the books.
Construction by its very nature is one of the most physically demanding workplaces you can choose. If you start burning your candle at both ends, and one of those ends is a construction site, something’s going to give.
And if something gives on a construction site, it can be costly, or it can be deadly. It can take your reputation with it, or your career.
So think long and hard about whether you have it in you to combine construction work and a four-year degree. Again, the option of working now to save money so you don’t have to divide your attention when you do go for your degree is always open.
The decision of whether you should get a construction management degree at all, and whether you should get it now, will depend on your personal circumstances – income, responsibilities, etc.
Long-term, construction management is becoming the province of those with bachelor’s degrees. But for the moment at least, there are options that don’t involve you spending four years of your life getting a degree.
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