The Value of Real-world Work Experience

In the many years of working in the construction industry, I have gained a plethora of experience and knowledge of the different trades associated with construction. Many trades I have practiced as a primarily way of living in the different contractor companies I have been employed under. It wasn’t until I began working for a general contracting company that I started wondering why are companies hiring fresh college graduates to fill superintendent and project management roles with in the companies instead of hiring veteran contractors with experience or promoting within the company.

I waited to get my college education later in life and gained my experience early but did not seem to carry any weight when seeking supervisory or management positions. The only criteria I was missing was a college degree. Many employers hire young college graduates for management positions, then aid them in receiving trade training after they have secured the position at the firm. This commonly practiced series of events seems backwards.

The value of real-world work experience is underrated. Glassdoor’s Employment Confidence Surveys Q1 of 2014 and 2015 showed that 70 percent of college graduates required additional on the job training. Namrata Gill, Vice President Human Resources, HR Head, Dr. Roddy’s Laboratories, Hyderabad Area, India says in a blog that 48 percent of employees say their degrees were not even relevant to their jobs. This trend is counter productive to economic growth is many industries, not only to construction. Construction employees in managerial and supervisory positions are compelled to be the subject matter expert in all aspects of the field they practice in.

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This fact is what provides the validation and support of the subordinates that they lead. How can a leader make just and intelligent decisions to a situation in the field when they have never been presented with any similar situations previously? This is not a newfound problem. Programs have been emplaced to combat this such as internships, site visits, and job shadowing. Some entities have even taken this dilemma a step further. The HBI Residential Construction Superintendent Designation has a Residential Construction Academy offered by Unify International that is geared to educate new project managers and superintendents in their actual field in real world scenarios. The program teaches trades and ethics dealing with contractors. A big part of being a Construction Manager or superintendent is dealing with a variety of contractors.

Not a lot of production is happening if you have uninformed or underexperienced project managers telling veteran contractors that are proficient in their trade, how to do their job. “Good site superintendents make or break a company” Power, Matthew. Professional Builder; Arlington Heights Vol. 71, Iss. 9, (Sep 2006). What goes into selecting a good project manager or site superintendent? Peter Orser of Quadrant Homes says he looks for character in an applicant. One who grasps the understanding of working with a customer, but some experts argue that overemphasis on an applicant’s psychology might neglect critical traditional skills-Mathew Power, Professional Builder Pg.2. Some argue that ones with experience have the habit of doing things their own way and have problems conforming to a new firm’s way of operating but there are many ways to do one thing in most cases. This is where the experience comes in.

Many situations call for an expert and experienced decision, experience that is not absorbed in a classroom but rather in the field. Stanford University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the United States, and Twente University, Department of Construction Management and Engineering in the Netherlands are implementing BIM (Building Information Models), to place construction management students in simulated environments of real-world project settings, Teaching construction project management with BIM support: Experience and lessons learned, Forest Peterson, Timo Hartmann, Renate Fruchter, and Martin Fischer, July 2010 (Pg.2). The two Universities did a case study to test the effectiveness of the BIM concept and found success in creating management senarios such as scheduling and estimating in a real-world environment. Real-world is the focus of this problem, or rather the lack there-of.

Engineers build prints everyday for various types of projects from parks and houses, to Highways and malls. These prints include exclusive and exact details dealing with erosion control, wastewater drainage, underground utilities, foundation and support schematics, and structural schematics. All these details are laid out in the prints. Production and construction of these prints involve many processes. Some of these processes are taught in college programs but all are taught in a perfect world situation. Elevation details on prints must be adjusted from time to time, more times than not. This is because reality is not the same as perception. With technology where it is today, engineers and surveyors can get close, but varying factors like “settling” and other conditional factors prohibit construction jobs from being assembled like a puzzle.

Experienced contractor now this detail alto well and have learned how to make appropriate adjustments to these conditions. When a structure has to be elevated higher than the plans predicted because of another project down the road has pushed the waste water toward the project I am working on, but I also understand that code states that sewage drain cannot surpass 1 percent fall and will hit 4 percent to intersect with the city sewer main, what do you do? These are problems construction managers run into everyday but must make on the spot decisions rapidly because contractors cannot stop for threat of hemorrhaging money, a schedule has been set for follow on contractors, and funding is most of the time set on deadlines. Not to forget that this change will be the beginning of a series of changes that have to take place to compensate.

Situations like this are a reality on every construction project and critical decisions must be made but these decisions must be made based on expertise acquired by experience because these scenarios are not taught in a classroom. “the best laboratory for construction management is the construction project itself. There is no substitute for knowledge derived from a guided experience in the field.” -Bolivar A. Senior, author of Infusing Practical Components into Construction Education.

No education however is just as counterproductive. It is reasonable to suggest that employers are hiring candidates based on other attributes such as their character. An important aspect of being a construction manager is being able to work with their subcontractor counterparts. Steve McGee of Unify International explains that superintendents and project managers today lack the legitimacy or as he says “street cred” to gain the support of the contractors they work with. Exemplifies personal skills and personality is needed to gain the support and trust of the subcontractors. Even so, these new superintendents need real experience and minimize the bad habits from the seclusion of the assistant role which brings McGee to his pitch that “training is essential after the hire no matter what a superintendent’s background, and remedial training is almost always in order — and should be an ongoing expectation”. Certain aspects of the project management or superintendent role are not acquired in the experience field as well. Management is a trade just as carpentry, plumbing, and framing.

Only difference is that management is much broader and more detailed. Framers need to know structural building codes whereas project managers need to know building codes pertaining to all trades involved in the project. Those in the management positions need the skills pertaining to budgets on a large scale, scheduling techniques, communication, technical, and other areas not commonly associated with traditional field experience. Communication and personality (people skills) are most underrated. Cohesion among the contractors is essential in order a project to operate smoothly. It is the managers job to facilitate this, so they must have the necessary communication and people skills to aid this task. It is suspected by some that the lack of the real-world knowledge can be traced back to the university instructors lack of, as Steve McGee puts it, “Hard Training”.

Is the lack of real-world experience becoming a new trend and where does it start? Tamera L. McCuen, M.S., M.B.A, of University of Oklahoma believes some university educators lack that same “hard training” and experience.” The connection of experience to knowledge and expertise in the subject field is critical in teaching the applied sciences. However, given the current trend in criteria established by universities for hiring new construction faculty, it appears that doctoral degrees and research agendas are replacing the requirement for faculty to have industry experience and expert knowledge in order to teach construction management at U.S. universities”, Tamera L. McCuen ,M.S., M.B.A, (April 2007) “Industry Experience: An Important Requirement for Construction Faculty”. You cannot throw real-life situations and scenarios at students when you do not know what to throw. Some argue that college educators should have “at least five years’ construction industry work experience along with a doctoral degree”- M.M. Khattab former president of ASC. Without the experience, you lose your legitimacy. How can one teach what they have not experienced?

If someone has a car accident, is severely injured and must hire an attorney, would they likely hire one who has never tried a case, never been to court, or won a claim? They have the same law degree as others. No, people look for practiced lawyer with a proven track record and experience! Some suggest that management being an applied science, the educator criteria should be the same of that of a doctor or lawyer where you would have to have filled that position at some time in order to be an educator. What is odd is the differentiation in professional requirements between that of engineers and managers. In order to be a practicing licensed engineer, one must acquire at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, have a minimum of four documented years practicing under an engineering firm or licensed engineer, and have passed two professional engineering exams. The highlighted point is the minimum of four years’ experience- “National Society of Professional Engineers”. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the only common credential to fill the role of a construction project manager or superintendent is a four-year degree in an associated field, no work experience is usually required. It does vary however form firm to firm. I have seen some that do require three to five years’ work experience, but this is not common. As closely related the two fields are, it eludes me why the credentials and requirements are so drastically different.

Higher education is an important tool for anyone to have. The general education, enhanced vocabulary ability, and social interaction experience is essential for those in management positions but that is not all that is needed. Those managing a hotel or restaurant need a different education base than those managing the development of a 250 lot sub-division or the construction of a 50-floor metropolitan building. The weighting scale for experience versus education would seem to be different. When construction manager closes a project, the new one will most likely be drastically different, because all projects are different. Field experience created this flexibility and adaptability. The more one experiences, the more adaptive they are. An important aspect of construction is the flexibility and knowledge to navigate the many avenues in order to complete a project on time and budget because after all, they are also dealing with mother nature.

Excavation and site prep contractors cannot work in adverse weather conditions, hence water. Flexibility and adaptability are an intricate part of the construction field that is usually acquire through work experience. This concept is one that is strictly conceived in the field and not in a classroom. Weather is a big contributing factor to the construction industry. It can cause major problems to schedules, budgets, quality, and worker safety without disregarding the overall goal of job completion. In situations like adverse weather is where manager flexibility, adaptability, and experience are at its most relevant. After the weather clears following a rain, project managers must be able to dictate whether site conditions are suitable for work. If the job is in the site preparation stage, they must decide whether dirt can meet moisture and compaction rations when disturbed during excavation. Managers must be able to foresee a reasonable amount of workable days during certain times of the year and account for things like holidays, rain seasons, storm seasons and other factors. For example, seasoned construction contractors know when scheduling a job that requires large amounts of dirt excavation, it is best not to schedule groundbreaking in November.

Job of that nature are usually scheduled in mid to late April. That way the dirt excavation is completed during the dry season and dirt quality is at its peak. The size of job matters also like if the manager can schedule the structural contractors to be completed before the wet season begins(usually around late November to mid-December), and if so, they can schedule the contractors that predominantly work indoors, to work through the wet season. Knowledge like this only comes from firsthand experience and cannot be taught in a class. Dealing with weather conditions exemplifies the notion that construction managers must be flexible because nothing is consistent with nature. On that fact, communication is an impeccable trait to have assuming the role of a construction manager, communication and people skills. Sometimes dealing with sub-contractors can be a bit, difficult because like Steve McGee noted about “salty dogs” of construction lacking subtlety Making a Superintendent: Nature vs. Nurture, Mathew Power. Professional Builder; Arlington Heights Vol. 71, Iss. 9, (Sep 2006) Pg.2.

When talking about what employers look for, it is obvious that education is on the list, even when referencing jobs that do not post a post-secondary educational requirement. Linsey Knerl at Northeastern University says in a blog that “while 65 percent of jobs require postsecondary education, managers still consider internships, employment during college, and volunteer experience more important than GPA or relevant coursework when evaluating a candidate’s readiness for a job”. The debate of which is more valuable, education or experience, is continuing to gain popularity, but the push for higher education is oppressing. A 2019 report in the Economic policy Institute stated that 1 in 20 new college graduates are unemployed. Even thought this statistic is including all fields of study, it does not exclude construction management. There is still a need for the tradesman of the construction industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015, 32.5 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and higher had attained a bachelor’s degree in a field of study. With the growing number of people with post-secondary education, the want for field experience is dwindling even though relevance is still pertinent.

In summary, although the importance of a higher education is essential to the successes of construction management, real-world field experience is grossly underrated. How many times has the project manager when to the most experienced contractor for advice to a situation? This experience acquired from years of having to make decisions and experiencing the consequences and outcome of those decisions is a trait that stands above the rest in providing success to a firm. With the push and requirement of a college education by employers, one would think it counter progressive that so many people their job is not relevant to their degree field. The idea of changing construction management programs at universities to incorporate a BIM (Building Information Model) similar to that Stanford University and Twente University is experimenting with is interesting and presents the opportunity to curve the trend of sending new construction managers to the construction world to lead projects with no experience.

Being that a lot of contracting firms have the process of hiring a candidate with a preestablished education (bachelors degree) then sending them to facility to educate the candidate in the trades like the Residential Construction Academy, why not reverse that idea. Would it be more productive to hire construction manager candidates with adequate field experience then aiding their efforts to obtain a four-year degree? Some firms, but very few, are trying this approach for select candidates. Understandably there are some issues to deal with like a commitment contract and evaluating a potential candidate’s character like Peter Orser’s approach. Communication is a skill that is a must in the construction management field and must be top notch. The aspect does include a manager’s ability to communicate, coordinate and gain the trust of the sub-contractors. Steve McGee talks about some contractor’s lack of subtlety, but their cooperation is imperative to the success of construction projects. Shedding light on the source if the education, what about the legitimacy of these college educators in the field of construction management?

Sure, they are subject matter experts when it comes to what is taught in the classroom, but they too need experience. Most life lessons are acquired from past experiences and stories told. Past experiences told from educators grab the attention of the student because it is not the normal routine. They could exemplify the relevance of a construction managers need to be flexible and adaptive. Nothing in the construction world is constant and there is always going to be something to work against you, rather its weather, time, or funding. Working in the construction field for many years, I have witnessed these factors that experience and only experience teaches, I have also witnessed the overall importance of higher education and the value it brings to construction management firms. Education is essential but can be taught, experience is only obtained by witnessing it. Employers should express and look for good and sound experience from potential management and superintendent candidates. Experience aids managers in making the best decision in the worst situations and help them to be adaptive to changing situations everyone experiences in the construction industry. The importance of experience should carry more legitimacy in the construction arena. “The only source of knowledge is the experience.”- Albert Einstein.

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The Value of Real-world Work Experience. (2022, Jul 16). Retrieved from

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