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Construction Management Degrees Are On The Rise With The Building Boom In North Texas

Bill Zeeble
Jesse Johnson (hat, glasses) overseeing construction of a home in North Dallas. He's also a construction management student at North Lake College.

There’s a construction boom in North Texas. It’s so hot that builders not only need workers, but managers. To fill that need, local colleges have seen their own boom of students seeking construction management degrees.  

We visit a construction management class at North Lake College where students in the two-year program are basically guaranteed a job when they graduate. 

In Dallas’ Preston Hollow neighborhood, Jesse Johnson oversees a house going up on Stichter Avenue. A student in construction management at North Lake College, he’s already using lessons from class.

“I’ve learned there’s formulas and sciences to scheduling this and doing the math of timelines,” Johnson says. “What used to take us a year to build or so, we just finished a house in this area in 7.5 to eight months. The faster we can go, like I said, you can make more money just as long as you continue to build a quality product.”

Johnson grew up around construction workers. When he was old enough, he joined the ranks. So when he’s not in class, he’s on a jobsite. Based on his experience, Sequel Home Builders hired him as an assistant superintendent, for about $30,000 a year, and they’re paying his school tab. When their superintendent left, Johnson got promoted.

Instructors are seeing 100 percent job placement 

At North Lake College, Johnson just finished another class in construction management. He says if he completes six homes a year as superintendent, he’ll make about $90,000.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Brad Bosher teaches construction management and is a program coordinator at North Lake College. Nearly every student has a construction-related day job.

“Most of our superintendents make about $15,000 per house, and can do anywhere from five houses to eight houses in a year,” Johnson says.

He’s like most students at Northlake, working full time during the day, taking classes at night. Instructor Brad Bosher, a licensed Texas architect, says the construction market’s so hot, his three classes are full with 24 students each. A few years ago, he might’ve only seen 15.

“Right now, people are so busy they can’t even see straight,” Bosher says.

'The demand outstretches the supply'

Construction classes at North Lake focus on accident prevention and inspections, principles of management and financial accounting, and construction materials testing. Mike Cooley knows all these subjects. He helped put up a lot of buildings across North Texas over a four-decade career and understands this job market.

“The demand outstretches the supply tremendously,” Cooley says. He retired from construction a few years ago, but couldn’t stay away.  Now, he’s North Lake’s Dean of the Construction Technology Department.

“Everybody that comes through my office looks for superintendents,” Cooley says. “I don’t have any unemployment through the students. They’re already working on an hourly basis and once they graduate, I have 100 percent placement.”

The industry is grateful. Phil Crone, who heads the Dallas Builders Association, says programs like North Lake’s amount to the industry’s farm system. He says if they doubled their enrollment, there would probably still be 100 percent placement.

'They call me the Jill of all trades'

North Lake’s two-year program usually takes longer because most students are busy.  Student Kristy Graf is a single mom who’s a building services coordinator at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Kristy Graf estimates she's a couple years away from getting her associate's degree in construction management from North Lake. It could significantly boost her salary.

“I do all the maintenance in our building,” Graf says. “I change their lights out, ceiling tiles, I work on the plumbing. I work on the doors. You know, I do basically a little bit of everything. They call me the 'Jill of all trades.'"

Fifteen years ago — before her divorce — Graf wanted to teach dance. When she needed income fast to raise her kids, she became a licensed plumber, honed other skills, and hasn’t looked back. Now, she’s looking forward to earning an associate’s degree.

“It’s kind of overwhelming at times because I do have three kids at home right now and they’re mainly teenagers,” Graf says. “It gets a little stressful but you know I explain to them 'Momma needs to do this so I can do better for us.' You know everything I do is for my kids.”

Graf earns a little under $50,000 a year now. With a degree that her employer says she needs to move up, she could make $75,000. In the construction field, which is still run mostly by men, Graf is confident about her future.

“Cause I’m that type of person that if you tell me I can’t do it, I’m going to show you I can.”

It would be unwise to bet against her.   

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.