While the current state of home building is certainly troubling, Dr. Brian Blaylock, a professor at the Architecture and Construction Department of Brigham Young University—Idaho, is more concerned about the industry’s future.
As home builders have seen, buyers and financing disappeared as the current real estate downturn has deepened, Blaylock has seen home builders disappear from his students’ line of sight.
"Most construction programs have an industry advisory board, which consists of members of the industry that come in a few times per year and talk about trends in the industry and help plan the curriculum," Blaylock says. "If a university program is accredited, it’s a requirement. The board makes sure what they’re teaching is relevant to what the industry needs."
But while BYU-Idaho’s board has typically ranged from six to 12 members and included at least three or four home builders, Blaylock no longer knows of a single home builder participating. As a result, he says, the curriculum has been steered heavily toward commercial construction, and students aren’t getting exposure to the possibilities residential building offers.
"The hazard with this is that the home building industry loses a whole generation of potential builders who are simply the best and brightest [students] that we have."
Page Browning, director for academic services at the Home Builders Institute (HBI), which oversees student chapters of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), believes Blaylock’s analysis is "probably spot on." While the number of student NAHB chapters around the country has stayed fairly steady over the last several years, she says, the number of participants in those chapters has declined more dramatically. In 2008, HBI oversaw 170 chapters with 4,900 student members. Today, the number of members has declined to 3,800 in 150 chapters.
"They’re just not being hired by home builders, and their classmates are not being hired," Browning says. However, she feels there’s still a big interest in home building, but that it takes a deep commitment for students to keep their eyes on the industry’s residential side while it stumbles through the current slump.
Dr. Keith Parker, director of the School of Construction Management at The University of Louisiana at Monroe, sees a similar trend, but that many of his students come with that deep-seated commitment thanks to having already established roots in the industry. "We’re from a rural area, and a lot of our students have home building experience. … They’re the children of people in the home building industry." But even with such strong ties, Parker concedes, "You focus a lot on where the money is and who hires your graduates."
However, Parker’s students have the benefit of a local HBA with strong ties to the university. "A lot of them are graduates of this program," he says. Many of those local builders now attend HBA meetings with the students and offer scholarships.
It’s that kind of involvement that Blaylock believes could keep residential construction on the radars of top students. He’s also seen dramatic results from attending the International Builders’ Show; one high-performing student even turned down a paid internship with a commercial construction firm in favor of an unpaid internship with a residential builder after attending. "The Builders’ Show did that," he says.
But even for builders who won’t be at the show and aren’t in a position to offer a job to soon-to-be graduates, Browning says there are opportunities for builders to help promising students. "Invite students to [HBA] activities and let them know that the HBA is interest in them," she says. "At this point, it’s spending time with the students."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.