THE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT talent market may not be as tight as some other areas, but it nevertheless requires unique skills and talents. With architecture as its backbone, it's a discipline that is somewhat of an island; if you're an architect, you might aspire to be a vice president of product development, but you're probably not looking to become a division president. Couple that with the fact that people in the discipline tend to move on for reasons of fulfillment rather than a desire for promotion, and the result is that turnover rates are lower than with certain other builder functions. Still, demand varies geographically, notes Mike Hollister, vice president and partner at the Sharrow Group in Rochester, N.Y. Land-constrained areas such as California—where builders thirst for innovative designs that maximize space—are experiencing the greatest competition for talent.
BLEND OF TALENTS The VP of product development can't simply be an award-winning architect. “This is someone with a keen eye for production design who can translate what he's hearing from sales into something buildable,” says Hollister.
When something involves creativity, your boss is going to want to give input. That makes the VP of product development a position requiring someone who has excellent chemistry with company leadership. That's one reason the turnover rate is not high: Once the fit is good, the VP will not jump ship readily. “In the last year, I've probably seen one job posting,” says Crystal Miller, a search consultant for residential construction at Plano, Texas-based Kaye/Bassman International, who says she scours builder Web sites to keep a finger on the pulse of the hiring climate.
The VP can come from a couple of career paths. He might have made his way straight through the home building architecture ranks, perhaps starting as a CAD designer and maybe getting an architecture degree along the way. Or he might have come from an architecture firm that services production home builders.
A common preparatory position is director of product development, given that a big builder's corporate office often has two or three people in that role. Along with architecture savvy, the director level typically requires strong management abilities because it involves oversight of CAD designers. “They are knowledge workers, and they have to be managed as knowledge workers,” says Hollister.
Architects, meanwhile, can come from outside firms or smaller builders. A possible trend to look for: Their educational pedigree may be strengthening. “Something that's becoming popular within the industry and with the educational system is a construction management degree with an 18-month master's in architecture,” says Miller. Harvard University has created such a program, she says, and the University of Texas at Arlington has modeled its program after Harvard's.
CAD DEMAND The title with the greatest demand might be one that's closer to the entry-level rung of the ladder: the CAD designer. People who fill these positions must have technical expertise and attention to detail that other product people may lack. It is the CAD designer who not only must be well-versed in the software but must make sure that when plans reach subcontractors, there's not a single line left for discussion.
Bill Carpitella, CEO at the Sharrow Group in Rochester, N.Y., calls CAD designers “superdrafters” and says that his company is working on filling several such positions. “It's not an easy position to fill,” he says. “It takes a special kind of person.” Carpitella remembers that when he was at K. Hovnanian around 2000, he and his company were throwing bunches of cash the way of these young talents because he couldn't find enough good ones. The market has cooled a bit since then, but CAD designers are still sought after. “I think there's at least a foundation of people,” he says, explaining why salaries have stabilized.
The ideal CAD designer has a four-year degree from a construction management school and has done some work out in the field; however, Miller sees a trend toward builders going to a new, more inexpensive source: graphic designers, who also know CAD.
“They know flow, they know function,” she says. “You will not see these people make structural changes,” but they have a strong background in the programs used.