PACKED INTO THE ON-SITE sales center of the Centex Homes/Fox & Jacobs neighborhood, which is dubbed Creekside at Preston, 43 professors of construction management from across the country clutched hard hats and studied floor plans as they gathered June 28 for an up-close look at the Frisco, Texas-based operation.

Despite tight quarters and the 100-degree temperatures they were about to endure on the construction site tour, the faculty members' enthusiasm for knowledge was evident as they eagerly participated in a question-and-answer session with field personnel, construction managers, and sales and marketing staffers. Questions included: What scheduling program do you use? How many days does it take to complete a home—from the foundation being poured to closing? How can you afford to use so much brick in this price range?

And throughout the session, Steve Nellis, vice president of recruiting for Centex Homes, was all smiles. After all, opening the eyes of academia to the real-world business of home building was just what he had in mind when he planned the “Build Your Future” event, a Centex Homes/University Faculty Conference. And there was no better way to apply the theories discussed throughout the three days of seminars than to break it all down to a neighborhood level.

BUILDING THE BRAIN TRUST As the driving force behind the Residential Construction Competition at the Home Builders Institute, Nellis knows the abilities of the nation's best and brightest construction management students first-hand. Each year, as a part of the International Builders' Show activities program, students nervously appear before Nellis and his panel of judges in a live team presentation—delivering a detailed management proposal based on specific assigned project parameters—in an effort to receive one of the contest's coveted awards and to show off their skills to potential employers. With Nellis guiding the event, the NAHB's youngest members are coaxed to put their best foot forward, but at the same time, they're shown no mercy. When one team experienced computer failure during last year's competition, Nellis forced them to press on. “This is real life,” he said. “Continue without it.”

At the same time, in his role at Centex Homes, Nellis is keenly aware of the industry's growing need for immediately employable construction managers. Since 1993, he's immersed himself in the academic community; served as subcommittee chairman for the four-year school's competition; been a member of the NAHB student chapters advisory board; and in 2002, became a trustee of the Home Builders Institute. Along the way, he's become a fixture on many campuses, developed valuable academic relationships, and elevated the stature of the residential career path among many students.

But in his quest to identify, hire, and train the best up-and-comers for Centex, an increasingly obvious gap between theory and practice emerged. “We recognize that the universities have been producing smart and educated students for us to recruit. However, they were lacking some of the skills we were interested in,” says Nellis.

BRIDGING THE GAP To address the issues, Nellis called on his long-standing relationships in the academic community. And from June 27 to 29, he hosted the “Build Your Future” event where key faculty members from 26 of the nation's top colleges and universities were in attendance. “We hope to influence the curriculums to help develop the students into the types of managers we [as an industry] need, not what academia thinks we need.”

With its soaring glass atrium, soothing streams, and acres of lush indoor gardens, the Gaylord Texan resort and convention center in Grapevine, Texas, had a lot more than just high-end amenities to offer the attendees. The resort was built by Centex's commercial business, Centex Construction, and stood as an impressive example of the company's skill sets.

The agenda was designed to bring attention to the professionalism and wealth of opportunity in today's evolving marketplace. In order to address the needs of all attendees, seminars were offered on myriad topics, including management development, information technology in construction, product development, sales, marketing, construction technology, land development, career paths, safety, estimating and purchasing, process improvement, and customer satisfaction.

In addition, Centex was able to share details and collect feedback about its scholarship programs, intern programs, and details of its two- to three-day intensive, regional job fairs. An interactive station was on hand so faculty members could see how students may apply for internships and full-time employment via a new Web site (