Three people in hard hats looking at plans
Examining the value of advanced degrees in the construction industry

While many companies make substantial investments in targeting and hiring undergraduate students, fewer consider graduate students due to a fundamental misconception about applicants who hold advanced degrees. By understanding this misconception, construction industry recruiters can open an additional pipeline for talent in the industry. 

The fundamental misconception is that all graduate students are the same. In reality, graduate students pursue advanced degrees for a number of reasons and have a variety of expectations related to salary, job roles and the added value they bring to an organization. 

Some graduate students are interested in complementing their undergraduate degrees in construction with an advanced degree to learn specialized knowledge related to more complex project delivery methods (e.g., public-private partnerships), innovative means and methods (e.g., use of drones to perform cut and fill measurements), or more advanced management topics that are not covered through their more general undergraduate degrees. These students may be interested in topics such as coordination of trades through the use of building information modeling (BIM) or automating site monitoring through the use of 360-degree cameras. Still, others are looking to transform the industry. They study cutting-edge research and are trained in the next generation of methods, processes, technology, and advanced applications in construction and design. For organizations committed to innovation and continuous improvement, new hires with graduate degrees are often a better fit compared to those with only undergraduate degrees, who may have a stronger fundamental knowledge of construction, but who lack a vision for the future of the industry.

Other graduate students pursue advanced degrees so they can change careers. Having already earned an undergraduate degree in a different area (e.g., business), some students pursue an advanced degree to lay a foundation for entry into the industry. These students understand that you can effectively learn construction on-site through shadowing and learning by doing, but want to be familiar with construction terminology and concepts beforehand. These students often have substantial professional experience, much of which they learn to translate to construction through the graduate program. 

Yet others seek graduate degrees because they’ve been working in the construction industry for a number of years, but they earned undergraduate degrees in a different field. In these cases, they seek a graduate degree in construction to better align their credentials with the work they’re doing. They may have been told that they aren’t eligible for promotion because they don’t have a degree in construction. Graduate programs provide the transition point for professionals from other industries to enter construction. 

We often hear recruiters claim that they don’t consider graduate students, because they assume that students will command a higher starting salary simply because they have an advanced degree. In some cases, the student may have developed a skill set that carries a higher value within the organization. In other cases, graduate students may expect a higher salary because they have years of construction industry experience and now have an educational credential that aligns with their experience. In both cases, a higher starting salary may be warranted. 

But again, not all graduate students have the same salary expectations. Many graduate students understand that their advanced degree can potentially set them on a quicker path to promotion rather than resulting in a more advanced starting role (and salary) within an organization. They understand that the construction industry values real-world experience, and many accept that the investment in their degree will pay off in the long term rather than in the short term. Graduate-degree holders often see the benefit of their degree when they climb the ranks in the organization, as many higher-level roles require an advanced degree. And while their peers will either pursue the advanced degree part time (or take time off work to pursue the degree full time), students who have already earned an advanced degree have an advantage in these cases. Organizations that consider applicants with advanced degrees also have an advantage because they don’t lose productivity or compromise employee work-life balance by sending current employees back to graduate school while they’re still working professionally. 

The only way to determine the motivations and expectations of graduate students is to talk with them, include them in your recruitment plan and don’t assume they’re just more academically inclined undergraduates who expect higher pay with less experience. Graduate students, like their undergraduate counterparts, can add value to construction organizations if they align well with the organization’s goals. But in order to see that value, they can’t be considered a homogeneous group with a single set of motivations and expectations.