Builders who worry about the trickle of younger adults coming into the housing industry need to do a better job of convincing high school and college students that residential development and construction are offering employment opportunities again after several years of deep layoffs and business failures among home-building companies.

That’s even true for students enrolled in secondary and collegiate construction management programs—presumably where the next generation of leaders for the housing sector should be emerging. A good number of these students still gravitate toward careers in commercial or industrial architecture and construction, because that’s where the economy and the media are telling them jobs are more likely to be in the immediate future.

Take, for example, Laura McCree, a senior at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who was one of the recipients of the NAHB’s Outstanding Student Awards for 2013. She says that she wouldn’t mind “trying” home building eventually, but for now she thinks commercial is the better path to take to achieve her long-range goal of becoming a structural engineer.

Builders looking to replenish their work forces are definitely running up against an economy that has stigmatized housing as an unstable sector. In Michigan, between 50% and 60% of the companies connected, directly or indirectly, to housing in 2008 were out of business by 2012, says Dr. Scott Witter, director of the School of Planning, Design and Construction at Michigan State University, which placed first in the NAHB’s construction management competition for four-year college programs this year.

About 150 of that school’s 550 students are enrolled specifically in its construction management program. MSU places, on average, 87% of the design and construction school’s students into their chosen field, at starting salaries that average around $51,000. “A great deal” of these students, says Witter, end up working for major construction firms such as Turner, Clark, and Gillespie Group.

As the housing market has shown renewed signs of life, MSU, says Witter, is “rededicating” itself to strengthening the residential component of its programs. “We’re looking for a proper balance” between residential and commercial, says Witter, and any changes to the curriculum would revolve around improving a student’s ability to communicate, present, and lead.

There are 69 universities and colleges with accredited baccalaureate programs for architectural drafting/construction and 11 with degree programs, according to the American Council of Construction Education (ACCE). Another 11 have accredited associate programs and nine offer associate degrees in construction.

Witter notes that in 2015, ACCE will be moving toward accreditation that’s “competency based,” which is why MSU wants all of the students in its program to take the AIC/CPC exam, which determines a student’s core understanding of construction management.

North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., which placed first in NAHB's competition among colleges with two-year programs, has had a drafting department for 75 years, and launched its construction management program three years ago. But it hadn’t sought accreditation because “it wasn’t important” to employers, explains Shannon Mehrer, who is program coordinator for construction management technology. However, the college is now updating its curriculum in order to seek accreditation after its officials concluded that it’s a selling point for students this college is trying to attract and their parents.

That pool of students in the college’s main target markets in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana, is shrinking, says Mehrer. “I would love to have more students; we’re not at capacity.” North Dakota’s construction management program enrolls between seven and nine students each year, compared to 25 in the drafting program, 30 in the building construction program, and 15-20 in the land surveying program.

Mehrer says that the college’s president, John Richman, is urging all department heads to form partnerships with industry, and to urge their representatives to visit the college and pitch the merits of their companies and jobs to students. He points out that the college’s diesel technology program, with more than 300 students, has been especially successful in forging these partnerships. “And all of their students have jobs lined up.”

Ken Malm, CEO of Craftmark Homes in McLean, Va., was on the advisory board of Virginia Tech when his son Robert was attending that university. (Robert now oversees all of Craftmark’s production and is managing director of the startup builder BeaconCrest Homes.) “I wish I had that sort of degree, which is damn near an engineering degree mixed with management and real estate,” says Malm.

But he doesn’t think college programs teaching construction management or architectural drafting can by themselves solve the housing industry’s manpower shortage. Home building, he says, “needs to be on the minds of kids when they are in high school.”

Many high schools have scaled back their vocational training, especially in recent years as government funding has diminished. But Malm may be onto something in his observation. Residential is the primary focus of the construction and architectural programs at Pennsylvania’s York County School of Technology, which in 2013 placed first for the second consecutive year in the NAHB construction management competition among high school programs.

Of the three students on that winning team whom Builder interviewed, two—Hunter Weibley and Joe Sheeler—said they are leaning toward careers in home building. Sheeler, whose father is a master plumber and whose uncle is a commercial construction manager, wants to be an architect; Weibley plans to attend Penn State or Pennsylvania College of Technology to study architecture design and engineering.

Don Bryant, York’s NAHB student chapter adviser, says that the high school’s architectural drafting program, with about 50 kids enrolled, is “pretty full.” But Bryant still does some drafting on the side for builders, and most of his clients are in Maryland, not Pennsylvania. So until there’s a broader recovery in the housing sector, Bryant expects a career in home building will be a tough sell to many of York’s graduates. 

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.