Construction project management is a dynamic and rapidly changing field that offers high-achieving workers an opportunity to excel in their roles by applying innovative solutions to difficult problems. Project managers in the construction business are responsible for planning and scheduling projects, managing contractors and client relationships, and ensuring that construction projects finish on-time and on-budget. In a world where many projects take longer and cost more than expected, a project manager with the knowledge and experience to understand project timelines and drive projects to their conclusion is worth their weight in gold.
This guide is meant for anyone looking to start building a career with a degree in construction management. In the first part, we’ll look at the ins and outs of the construction business, explain what construction managers do, and talk about why so many people want to sign up for construction management roles. In the second part, we’ll back-track a little bit and get into the educational aspect. What does it take to become a construction manager?
What skills and experience are required? Where should you attend college? Then, finally, we’ll cover the application and hiring process for construction managers, giving you the most current tips and advice for getting your career started at a top construction firm.
The What and Why of Construction Management
For starters, we wanted to take some time to introduce you to the world of construction project management. If you’re searching for specialized career options in the project management field or looking for a way to expand your existing career in construction or contracting by spending time in the classroom, a degree in construction project management could be the best option for you.
In this section, you’ll learn exactly what a role as a construction project manager entails, and the kinds of thinking and activities that successful construction project managers engage in each day to ensure success in their roles.
What is Construction Project Management?
Construction project management is a special type of professional project management that combines the knowledge and application of project management techniques to oversee construction projects from beginning to end.
The goal of a project manager is to control the time, cost, and quality of a construction project by working to keep the project on schedule, minimize costs (especially unanticipated costs, like those incurred because of delays, and ensure that the quality of materials and labor is acceptable to the client.
While job site managers in the construction business are responsible for the immediate coordination of labor and resources on the job site itself, project managers sit in the back office and see the “big picture” – how labor hours are being spent, scheduling and delays, allocation of materials, and everything else important.
While contractors and job site managers are focused on overcoming the challenges associated with building the project, back-office construction project managers are responsible for both the project itself and satisfying the business needs of the project (profitability).
This puts construction project managers in a unique role compared to others. While other assets are focused on applying their skills to the project itself, the project manager must remain certain of the ongoing timeliness and profitability of the whole operation. It is their efforts and oversight that make the project a success or failure.
What Does a Construction Project Manager Do?
The roles and responsibilities of project managers vary significantly across different companies and projects. As a prospective construction project manager, it is important that you develop both practical and “soft” skills that will enable you to function effectively in differing work situations and circumstances. The Institute of Project Management highlights nine distinct areas that require the knowledge and attention of project managers across industries:
1. Ensuring the coordination of various project elements
2. Scope management to ensure that all required work (and only the required work) is completed
3. Providing an effective and realistic project schedule
4. Cost management to identify required expenses and maintain budgetary control
5. Ensure that functional requirements of the project are satisfied
6. Human resource management to effectively employ and deploy project personnel
7. Management of communications to ensure an effective and efficient flow of communication, both internally (within the project team) and externally (between the project team and stakeholders)
8. Risk management to analyze and mitigate potential risks associated with the project
9. Procurement management, leveraging appropriate supply management processes to assess suppliers and purchase the right materials for the job.
These nine areas form the basis for certification for project management in any industry, so what makes construction project management different from other types of project management, for example in Information Technology?
The key difference comes down to what specific knowledge you will need to effectively execute your role. If you know how long it takes concrete to dry, but you’ve never configured an IMAP server before, your knack for project management should probably be applied to construction management rather than IT projects.
Here are some other industry-specific responsibilities that construction project managers have.
Bidding – In the construction business, a bidding process is often used to determine which firm will be assigned a contract for a specific job. Public sector jobs use an open bidding process where any firm can submit a project proposal, while private sector companies often use closed bidding, inviting just a few selected companies to bid on their project. Construction project managers can be responsible for preparing bids and project proposals, including defining a budget, the scope of work, and a project schedule that meets the needs of the customer.
Activity Documentation – For most big construction contracts, daily reporting is a contractual requirement meant to create an ongoing record of what work was accomplished throughout the project. To ensure communication between the project and stakeholders, the project manager is responsible for keeping a project diary, organizing logs or records generated by the project (phone logs, data transmissions, deliveries, RFIs) and managing daily field reports which relay information including the day’s activities, weather conditions, visitors and deliveries, and any delays or other incidents.
Data-driven Decision Making – Construction project management is a rapidly developing field, and the introduction of technology into the construction industry is presenting many new opportunities for managers to change the way things are done and improve results and profitability at their companies through data-driven decision-making.
Enterprise project management applications like eSub are making it possible for construction project managers to receive and review larger volumes of project data each day, ensuring that project managers have the resources available to assess and respond to potential issues before they become big delays. When project managers can make timely decisions based on new data, they have the best chance to keep their projects on schedule, avoid disputes, and maximize profits.
What are the Different Types of Contracting and Subcontracting?
When considering a career in construction project management, it’s important to decide whether you want to specialize and how much. Project management is a broad field with applications across all industries.
Your decision to specialize in project management for construction makes you a more specialized candidate for that type of role, but it also “worsens” your application for other types of roles. To start thinking about where you might want to focus your attention and experience, think about which of these seven areas of construction most interests you:
1. Agricultural – farming is big business, and when farms are ready to spend big capital on expansions, they call big construction companies to make it happen. Agricultural construction includes barns, storage silos and elevators, wells, tanks, ditches and more. These projects vary significantly in scope and size but are always plentiful.
2. Residential – includes houses, apartments, townhouses and other mixed dwellings that could include small offices or low-rise housing. Managers in this area will work with real estate developers and manage teams of contractors for drywall, tiling, plumbing, framing, insulation, and everything in between. These jobs are profitable with a lot of moving parts.
3. Commercial – working with the private sector, you’ll be overseeing the construction of office buildings, “big box” stores, malls, warehouses, banks, and other large private buildings. Even outdoor attractions like golf courses and arenas could fall into this category. A great option if you love working in the private sector and are looking to market your elite skill set for big compensation.
4. Institutional – working with the public sector means that you’ll be involved in open bidding for projects like schools, fire and police stations, hospitals, government buildings and more. Public sector projects are highly competitive with big budgets.
5. Industrial – industrial projects can be very demanding, with lots of moving parts and unique requirements depending on the industry. Chemical and power plants, manufacturing plants, steel mills and oil refineries, seaports, and pipeline projects all fall under industrial applications. You’ll also be dealing with more specialized contractors like pipe and steamfitters.
6. Heavy civil – civil construction deals with infrastructure development for large clients. These projects are sometimes privately funded but generally fall under the public sector, with main project types including bridges, railroads, tunnels, airports, and even military facilities.
7. Environmental – formerly covered under heavy civil construction projects, environmental projects now enjoy their category which includes the construction and expansion of water and wastewater treatment plants, storm management and sewer system and air pollution control.
The type of construction projects you take on as a project manager will determine the contractors you work with, the requirements, scope and impact of the project, and the skill set that will best serve you. Do you see yourself getting along best in the private sector with big business executives, in the residential sector with developers and an army of contractors, or in collaboration with public sector employees?
Do you thrive under pressure and love a new challenge, or does your strength come from systematizing predictable processes? Only you can determine what type of construction project management best satisfies your current and future aspirations.
Starting Your Education in Construction Management
While there is no set path for construction project managers to develop their skills and experience, a strong educational background in project management is a critical asset when it comes to successfully applying for a job in your chosen field. This section discusses the features and benefits of some of the top college programs for construction project management in the United States.
We’ve selected the programs that are offering the best value for their students when it comes to employment prospects after earning a degree, but first, let’s look at how you can start preparing for a construction management degree at the college level.
What High School Courses are Needed for Construction Management?
Preparation for your college education in construction management is going to require the completion of a general education diploma. Not only will employers want to see that you’ve disciplined yourself to finish high school, but colleges will also look at your grades to ensure that you’ve prepared yourself adequately to succeed at the college level. Look for the following courses at the high school level that will help prepare you for a role in project management:
Leadership – The value of leadership courses is heavily under-stated in the high school environment. Project managers are expected to make executive decisions about how to manage personnel and resources, so it is useful to have experience in a leadership/decision-making role prior to being employed as a project manager.
Critical Thinking – Consider taking a critical thinking course at the high school level that will allow you to further develop the way in which you capture and analyze information and make decisions. Successful project managers must use the latest tools to gain insight and information into issues affecting the project before finding and applying solutions to mitigate costs or prevent delays.
Mathematics – A strong background in numeracy is an asset for project managers tasked with controlling and mitigating costs on a construction project. From the bidding process to cost accounting, math is an essential skill and a huge time-saver for construction managers working on complex projects.
Top Ten Construction Management Programs
A great education is the ideal launching pad for a successful career in construction project management. To get you started on the right track, we’ve reviewed programs across the country and created a top-10 list of our preferred construction management college programs in the United States. Check it out!
School: Minnesota State University
Degree: B.S. in Construction Management
MSU’s comprehensive and skills-based approach to teaching construction management has made its program one of the most popular nationwide when it comes to satisfying the needs of students and their prospective employers. The program bases its success on the skills-development outcomes of its students, focusing on ensuring that recipients of this degree have demonstrated the qualities required to succeed on real-world projects. The coordination of industry-sponsored events for students offers many opportunities for networking that can lead to employment within the industry.
School: Arizona State University
Degree: B.S. in Construction Management
If you’re one of the few construction project management students that knows exactly what kinds of projects they would like to work on in the future, there’s no better destination than Arizona State University for realizing your dreams. This University offers four specialization options within its Construction Management degree program – General Building Construction, Heavy Construction, Specialty Construction, and Residential Construction. Students can focus on and develop an understanding of the particular needs and character of the area they wish to work in, helping ensure their future success.
School: Wentworth Institute of Technology
Degree: B.S. in Building Construction Management
The Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA offers a comprehensive instruction in the core principles and techniques of construction management. With courses taught by instructors with first-hand experience in the industry, it’s no wonder that this program awards more bachelor’s degrees in construction management than any other college in the United States.
Cost: $475 per credit hour
School: Milwaukee School of Engineering
Degree: BS in Construction Management
Its placement at Milwaukee’s premier engineering school makes this program an ideal fit for someone that has excelled in Math or Physics and wants to extend their knowledge and understanding in those areas while gaining comprehensive training in modern construction methods. Graduates from this program found employment at a 100% rate following successful completion of this program, and with an average salary of $63,375. If you’re looking for a lucrative career in the public sector, the combination of business administration, scientific, and engineering programming offered by the MSOE promises to set you up for success.
School: Drexel University
Degree: BS in Construction Management
Located in Philadelphia, PA, Drexel University was one of the first to offer a co-operative education program for construction management, and that program has remained one of the most competitive in the country, with students gaining valuable work experience in jobs with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, LF Driscoll, JPC Group, and more. More than 1500 businesses and other institutions are signed up to receive co-op students from Drexel, indicating how widely respected the program is for delivering high-quality students as employees for an international pool of companies. Students will receive an interdisciplinary education that covers many facets of science, business, construction and project management.
School: California State University – East Bay
Degree: BS in Construction Management
If you’re looking to stand out in your college program by taking on an ambitious upper-year project, there’s no better place to strive than the California State University Easy Bay Campus. Senior projects that demonstrate the acquisition of core construction management skills are highly impressive to hiring companies. Students in the BS Construction Management program will have the opportunity to complete two senior projects that incorporate economic analysis, proposal writing and construction management into one project.
School: Clemson University
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Construction Science and Management
Clemson has developed their Construction Management program since its foundation in 1962 with heavy input from the ACCE, with the goal of providing a comprehensive curriculum that constitutes a meaningful education for students. In addition to classroom requirements, graduating students must accumulate 800 hours of construction experience with an approved construction company and will be offered the opportunity to study abroad in either Australia of England during their junior year. Also, a boon to students are the student-to-teacher ratios of 25:1, which allow program attendees more one-on-one time with the experienced faculty that administers courses.
School: Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
Degree: BS Construction Management
The College of Engineering at LSU, which houses the Construction Management degree, is ranked 91st in the country, and its influence on the degree itself has led to the inclusion of math, physics, and analytical geometry into the required course load for students. In addition to a strong foundation in math and physics, attendees will study construction methods, project management techniques, and other specialized construction management classes. Students here acquire a broad knowledge base that they can apply to many types of construction projects.
School: University of Louisiana-Monroe
Degree: BS Construction Management
What began as a modest Junior College has now become a 4-year University with one of the top construction management programs in the country. The University of Louisiana at Monroe enjoys a rich history as the first University in the United States to earn ACCE accreditation in 1976. Students will enjoy a hands-on education that includes 60 credits in core subjects and 60 credits in construction management, with courses in Cost Estimating, Scheduling, Digital Site Management and more. Despite its rich history, this is one of the most affordable schools on our list.
School: University of Central Missouri
Degree: BS in Construction Management
If you’re not considering Missouri for your education in construction management, you should probably start. As one of the most affordable programs on our list, Missouri offers an excellent program with high rates of successful outcomes, and supplies merit and need-based scholarships to new students. ACCE and ATMA certifications and a 17:1 student to faculty ratio ensure that students receive plenty of attention from qualified instructors.
Accreditation: ACCE, ATMA
How to Choose the Best Construction Management Program for You
There are so many factors that go into choosing a quality construction management program that it’s impossible to list them all. Besides the normal factors that go into choosing an education program (location, cost, time), we encourage prospective construction project managers to look at course descriptions and find a program whose offerings best suit their strengths.
If you’re planning to act as a back-office manager, you’ll need to focus on programs that emphasize the project management aspect of education. If you see yourself getting more involved in the field, you’ll need to broaden your expertise in construction-related subjects. Finding the right balance that leverages your skills and reflects the needs of construction companies is your best bet.
From the Classroom to the Jobsite
Job and Salary Expectations for Construction Project Managers
Once you’ve completed your education, you’re ready to start managing construction projects. Congratulations! Construction is a global business worth $10 trillion annually, and you’re ready to start claiming your piece of the pie.
Many of the Universities we listed above report near-100% job placement rates for graduating students, and our research indicates that many construction project managers (28%) have over 20 years of experience, meaning they are likely to be retiring soon. In contrast, just 17% have 1-4 years of experience, so we’re projecting demand for this skill set to increase over the next ten years.
Construction project managers can earn anywhere from $50,000 to $135,000 or more. The average starting salary for new construction project managers is around $58,000, with the industry-wide average salary closer to $77,000. Additionally, earning employment in a big-market city like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston will improve your salary prospects.
Career Paths for Construction Project Managers
Project management doesn’t have to be the end of the road for your career, and advancement in the construction business means more responsibility, better perks, and bigger pay.
If you’ve focused on construction and engineering methods throughout your education, you could move on to a role as a civil engineer or even a director of engineering. Those with a focus on the project management aspect can become senior engineering project managers, or even get into higher-level operations management or some executive roles with the right construction firm.
Successful project managers can translate their skills into other industries, moving on to successfully manage IT projects or other corporate initiatives. Specializing in either business administration, project management or construction methods and engineering during your education can strongly influence your future earning potential, so choose wisely!
How to Excel in Your Role as a Construction Project Manager
In today’s competitive economy, simply showing up to work each day won’t make you stand out. Successful construction managers understand and focus on the core activities that add value to their organizations. Here are the three most important ones:
Budget Management – If you can bring projects in under cost, you’ll be one of the most sought-after project managers in the construction business. Budget management comes down to understanding what it costs to get things done and ensuring that you are effectively managing company resources to minimize waste. Project-costing tools like eSub can help you create and save project records, allowing you to improve cost estimates over time and complete more projects under budget.
Contract Negotiation – Negotiating a contract means getting the most money that you can for a job that you can deliver and keeping it profitable. It also means protecting your company from liabilities it could incur if the contract is not completed correctly. If you can master contract negotiation early in your career, your company will rely on you to deliver agreements that are profitable and realistic. (Hint: You can nail budget management by negotiating contracts that are highly profitable, ensuring that any waste created in the project has a minimal impact on profits).
Project Management Software – Your ability to navigate project management software effectively is a big help for construction companies looking to find efficiencies in their operations while modernizing their approach. Project management tools like eSub facilitate communication and transparency across the project life cycle while ensuring that items like change orders and daily reports are always accessible and never lost.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide on how you can find a fun and rewarding career in construction project management. As an industry, construction is here to stay, and project managers with a knack for budget management, cost savings, and contract negotiation will always be able to find work. Good luck!