A RECRUITER FOR ONE OF America's largest home building firms was meeting with the dean of a top construction school during a recent campus visit and was startled to learn that the dean had never heard of the big builder. “He asked me what we did,” says the recruiter, sounding astonished (and speaking on the condition that neither he nor the school be identified). The dean's question, however, speaks volumes about the uphill battle that home builders continue to face recruiting future talent on college campuses.

While home builders have become consummate marketers of the ultimate big ticket purchase, with slick oversized brochures and sophisticated interactive Web sites, appealing to construction school graduates has proved to be a far tougher sell. Part of the problem is that home builders have only in recent years begun to seriously court relationships with construction management school faculties and students.

Perhaps home builders' bigger challenge, according to those involved in college recruitment, is an image problem: Home building is still perceived as second-class work compared to commercial construction projects in the eyes of many construction school graduates—and those who teach them.

“There is a bias against home building in the schools,” acknowledges Steve Nellis, vice president of recruiting at Centex Homes in Dallas. The root of the bias, he believes, comes from the funding sources of undergraduate programs and the advisory boards, both of which reflect a commercial construction industry heritage.

Martin Freedland, president of Organizational Development Associates in Atlanta, concurs, noting that home builders have a lot of homework to do to burnish their image on campuses. “When you go through construction management, they talk to you about building the Time Warner Center and a massive airport. The very bottom rung is home building,” he says. “Think about security in an airport, and the baggage handling systems. It's a million square feet. You want me to build a 1,500 square foot home after hearing about that airport?”

Commercial Appeal The emphasis on commercial construction and transportation projects flows from the fact that the majority of faculty members in construction management programs come from commercial or civil engineering backgrounds, observes professor Howard Bashford, director of the housing research institute at the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University in Tempe. Even Bashford, who teaches in the residential course curriculum at the college, does not have a background in home building. He started by designing bridges.

“During the last 20 years, there has been tremendous growth in home building, and these are now large, wonderful companies offering all kinds of opportunities,” says Bashford. “But the students don't know that, because most professors don't know that.” From Bashford's perspective, “Home building needs to not just raise its profile, but significantly raise its profile. There's a perception problem, there's a lack of knowledge, and there's a lack of history” between the builders and the schools, he says.

With the need for talent growing as fast as a Las Vegas suburb (see “Manhunt for Managers,” May 2004, page 48), builders certainly need to make up for lost time. At Centex, Nellis is looking at filling 15,000 positions over the next five years. Pulte Homes' Renee Belanger, a human resource project specialist, says she expects to hire 1,000 students as part of the builder's broader recruiting efforts.

Image Building It's not that home builders haven't been making new and concerted efforts to raise their respective image. Nellis, who was recruited by Centex in 1982 during his senior year at the Michigan State building construction management program, says he spends more time now asking deans and professors at construction management schools to introduce home building as a career opportunity. One of his most effective tools: students interested in home building. “I'll find the students and take them to the professors and say, ‘Tell them what you want to do,' ” Nellis says. He knows “the awareness factor needs to be raised,” he says, “but the deans are responding.”

Another place where builders are making headway is on the medium of choice for most of today's students: the Internet. The wall of ignorance about residential building, it seems, has started to crumble.

Jon Downs, vice president of human resources at Toll Brothers, says he noticed a growing number of students approaching him at a job fair recently saying, “We want to work for Toll Brothers.”

“Before, they would have said, ‘What do you do? What states are you in?' ” he recalls. The recruiter for the Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based builder, who builds in 22 states across the nation, credits the Web for increasing student awareness of the opportunities at the luxury home builder.

But college professors such as Bashford note it will take more than showing up at college job fairs, meeting with professors, and completing electronic marketing to attract top students.

Money Matters Research money determines the interests of many students and faculty, says Bashford. “The way we get students really interested and involved is to hire them to help with a research project,” he says. “I teach strictly residential building courses, and I've had one little research project in sustainable housing. And that was funded by a utility company, not a home builder.”

With the important exceptions of Pulte Homes and Centex Homes, he says, students see few projects or scholarships funded by home builders. “Research money is scarce as tinned beef,” Bashford said, betraying his Wyoming farm roots. The students can see where the money is, he says, especially when it comes to scholarships, which are named for Bechtel or Sundt or other commercial companies.

The school where Bashford teaches reflects the funding scarcity. Despite being renamed in 1992 after a $4 million gift from the Del E. Webb Foundation, and being affiliated with the Ira Fulton School of Engineering—named for a successful Arizona home builder who endowed it with a $50 million grant—the school has only Bashford, among 14 faculty members, fully devoted to residential construction studies. Of the school's 400 students, only 20 percent are signed up for the residential curriculum.

Some schools have seen the potential of offering programs for the residential construction market. Ask most home building recruiters to name the finest colleges for construction management, and Brigham Young University comes up quickly. Not only does the Provo, Utah-based institution have a residential construction program of relatively long standing—it was founded in 1965—it also focuses more prominently than most other construction schools on home building as a career choice. (Ira Fulton's name will soon adorn BYU's School of Engineering as well, the school recently announced, after Fulton made several contributions totaling $50 million over the past several years.)

BYU's graduates are in high demand, says professor Jay Christofferson, program chairman of BYU's Construction Management School of Technology. However, he chides big builders for not reaching out to students earlier. “I have recruiters calling all the time at the end of April,” he says. But by then, “most everyone has a job. If [builders] would call earlier, they could get good students.”

Expanded Programs Douglas J. Cron, the head of the construction management program at Michigan State University, meanwhile, has worked for four years to get his program more respect, and his efforts have now paid off. On July 1, the program, currently part of the School of Engineering, became a stand-alone construction management school at the university: The School of Design Planning and Construction.

“We'll be one of three [freestanding] construction schools in the country,” Cron says, joining the Del E. Webb School of Construction and the M.E. Rinker Sr. School of Building Construction at the University of Florida at Gainesville. “We've already had some interest from alumni in putting their name on the school,” he says. The blossoming of this program, one of the oldest in the country, is a sign that home building is starting to come into its own on college campuses.

Many schools have started participating more seriously in the NAHB's student division's residential construction competition sponsored by Centex Homes. In the fall, teams of six students from both two- and four-year construction management programs compete to design and develop a community and present their proposals, which can be several hundred pages long, to a panel of professionals at the International Builders' Show in January. This year, Michigan State had the winning team for the first time in 13 years.

Closing The Sale That doesn't guarantee students will end up wanting to work for a big builder even if they win. The career choice of one of the winning team members, Kristen Raven, is perhaps emblematic of the challenges home builders face when they recruit on campus. Raven says that although she loved the competition, she ultimately wants to choose a commercial career.

“I learned a ton about home building, but I like fast-track big projects, and I'm not sure residential offers as much of that,” she says. “What I did like about home building is that you can really get to know your projects, which produces a better product in the long term.” By contrast to home building, she says, commercial construction offers “a million different ways to go.” But even commercial construction might not contain her. “Eventually, I want to go to law school,” she says.

Matthew Clinger, a recent Purdue graduate, is another student who did not even interview with residential builders. He starts with ExxonMobil Corp. this month. “Initially, I wanted something big,” he says. “ExxonMobil is global, as opposed to national. But I could see how if I grew tired of large corporations and wanted to return to Indiana, I could do some home building.”

That's a common refrain, says Daniel Halpin, head of the division of construction engineering and management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“The students we graduate are interested in a company that has a national reach or is dominant and highly regarded in a region,” he says.

Big builders, nonetheless, are becoming a more prominent presence on students' radar screens. Downs, who says Toll Brothers sends recruiters and project managers to more than 20 schools and job fairs a year, feels the change. “There's been a big paradigm shift, especially with luxury home building,” he says. The industry's improvements in management, scale, and salaries are starting to be noticed by the leading graduates, he says.

Purdue's Halpin, meanwhile, adds that he's intrigued by the technological challenges of home building. “One area we're trying to advance in our curriculum is in some high-technology aspects,” he says, such as advanced HVAC systems and advanced lighting and wiring systems. “But home building is a different type of industry” from commercial construction, an area where many of the professors are more familiar, he says.

Still, he acknowledges that home building is an increasingly attractive choice. For most home builders, however, the most important lesson professors are teaching is that builders will need to marshal their best sales and marketing efforts if they are to succeed in winning their share of top graduate talent.

Where Builders Earn Poor Grades Big builders are still making their share of blunders while competing for top construction school graduates, according to recruiting veterans. Among the common errors hurting builders' grades with prospective grads:

  • Send the local guy who doesn't know the national opportunities at the company. Del E. Webb School of Construction professor Howard Bashford says that although the situation is improving, many residential builders assume that graduates want to work locally. “They don't talk about their companies as national businesses with many opportunities,” he says. “Our graduates have four or five job offers each. They want to know what you can offer them down the road.”
  • Don't pay your interns. Summer internships are a stepping stone to permanent jobs, and a surprising number of big builders do not pay their summer interns—or pay them very little.
  • Just hire by grade point averages (GPA). Hiring by GPA is tempting, but experienced recruiters look for work experience, leadership, and attitude. “The first thing I ask a student is why they want to build homes,” says Centex Homes' vice president of recruiting, Steve Nellis. “I want an answer that shows that they have a passion for building homes. I want students with good people skills. I'll take a student with a 2.8 GPA with work experience over a 4.0 in a heartbeat.”
  • Just show up at recruiting season. Try to be a presence on the best campuses by speaking on panels or at luncheons. While it's fine to address students in residential building courses, a general speaking engagement allows you to recruit and educate those outside the home building classes.
  • Fail to follow up with all students. BYU's professor Jay Christofferson says builders who fail to follow up with students that they're not going to hire reflects badly on the company. “One of the biggest complaints our students have is no follow-up,” he says. “Students don't hear from a company, and they tell their friends. A recruiter should say, ‘We'll get back to you in two weeks.'” Part of the failure to follow up, believes Christofferson, is that home builders might not know what they really need. “Students can't wait that long” to find out, he says. And big builders can't wait any longer to establish good relationships with their future leaders.