Construction companies are facing a labor crunch. Not only are reliable workers in short supply, but as veteran project managers retire, experienced replacements who can plan, coordinate, budget, and supervise construction projects from start to finish are even harder to find.

To help build those skills, the Virginia Tech Richmond Center developed the Fundamentals of Construction Project Management through a partnership with the Home Building Association of Richmond and Andrew McCoy, the Beliveau Professor in the Department of Building Construction, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, and director of the university’s Virginia Center for Housing Research.

“Labor is tighter than it’s ever been in the industry,” said McCoy, who leads the six-week course designed for those already in the workforce. 

The shortage has left many construction companies focusing on talent retention — and combing their job sites for workers who can move into leadership roles in the construction office. However, the skills perfected in the field and those that a project manager needs to succeed don’t always align.

“A lot of these people have been out in the field — they have experience, they understand quality and process, things like that — but they just don’t see how it fits into the bigger picture and what’s important to make sure the business survives,” McCoy said. “They want to be craftspeople and aren’t as focused on being good businesspeople — yet. We’re trying to make them aware of some of the needs they’re going to have and the way a company thinks.”

Liz Fillman, assistant director of the Richmond Center, said, “We’re helping alleviate some struggles that builders are having. This program really hits on all the points of our mission — connecting our faculty and tapping into the resources that we have in Blacksburg and bringing them here to the Richmond region to make a difference.”

Part of Outreach and International Affairs’ network of Commonwealth Campus Centers — which also includes centers in Roanoke, Newport News, and Abingdon — the newly renovated Richmond Center serves as the region’s gateway to Virginia Tech and offers valuable educational opportunities such as professional development, customized workforce training, and graduate programs.

Danna Markland, CEO of the homebuilders association, said that for years, a strong emphasis was placed on trade skills as the primary need for workforce development efforts. Recent industry surveys, however, have shown that project management is an equally acute skills gap.

“Unlike large-volume homebuilders with corporate capacities, small- to medium-sized homebuilders usually do not have career development benefits in place. Through this course, Virginia Tech is offering a niche program that fills a consistent gap in that segment of the homebuilding industry,” she said.

Clay Bowles is one of the dozens of construction workers who jumped at the chance to expand his skills. For the past three years, he has been learning on the job as a project manager for a general contractor in Richmond.

“My college degree couldn’t be further from anything related to construction. I have only work experiences, and I really want to understand the who, what, and why behind a lot of what I’m working through,” he said.

During weekly sessions, the course provides those basics, examining topics from accounting and scheduling to supply chains and cash flow. Along with offering best practices and discussing how those practices came to be used, classroom instruction is tied to real-world challenges through examples and a visit to a construction site.

Course participants have included not only current project managers, but also workers interested in moving into a project management role, employees who work in a different department and want to better understand the entire system, and 20-year veterans looking for a refresher.

Mike Coyle, director of homebuilding at Eastwood Homes in Richmond, has been in the industry for 22 years. He participated in the class alongside other members of his team.

“I signed up five others from our company, four of whom have about a year of experience in homebuilding,” he said. “Going into it, I thought I was possibly a little overqualified for a fundamentals course, but it was a refresher to all the little things I take for granted. It will help me when I am communicating with my employees about the little things in construction. All those little things make up the big things and are very important to be successful.”

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