On any given day, Jennifer Volbeda, a project engineer for Harsch Investment Properties, could be coordinating with architects, tenants and specially selected construction teams to execute a customized renovation of a retail space in Oregon, Washington, California or Nevada. For Volbeda, the development process combines the pleasure of teaming with people to create fresh new spaces; the intellectual challenge of understanding construction from different eras and blending it with contemporary needs and technologies; and the responsibility – and pride – of successfully managing construction across her employer’s retail portfolio. It makes for decidedly satisfying work days for Volbeda who, five years ago, never planned to pursue a career in commercial real estate.
“I grew up in the construction world,” Volbeda said. As a child, she watched her father run his own landscaping company. She learned to read construction plans, saw portions of the construction process and felt his delight at creating new spaces.
But Volbeda had different career plans. She studied speech communication and Spanish in college, then moved to Spain to teach English as a second language. Returning home to Portland, Oregon, a few years later, she landed in an administrative job at a general contracting company.
“I fell in love with the company and the kind of projects they were doing,” she said.
Assigned to compile the operations and maintenance manuals at the end of each project, Volbeda began reading every document about every completed project. She enrolled in community college classes, began shadowing a project engineer at work and soon earned a promotion.
“Within a couple of years and with very little construction background, I became a project engineer on million-dollar projects!” she said.
Volbeda also cultivated a habit of regularly attending industry networking events. “I opened a lot of doors through industry events, including NAIOP.”
Through that networking, she met the executive director of the Master of Real Estate Development program at Portland State University and learned about the rich mixture of construction, development, business, finance and public policy courses the program offered.
“It showed me there are a lot more career opportunities than I had ever anticipated,” said Volbeda, who is a 2018 NAIOP diversity student scholarship winner and is set to graduate with her master’s in the spring of 2019. “It has been a whirlwind few years and I like where I’m going… My career could go in 10 diverse directions.”
Enlightening students and potential career changers to the wide array of opportunities within commercial real estate is a core challenge for educators and the industry, said NAIOP Distinguished Fellow Shaun Bond, Chair of the Real Estate program and Director of the Real Estate Center of the University of Cincinnati. Many students, he said, know little if anything about CRE careers. Consequently, the University of Cincinnati has taken several initiatives to more broadly inform students about CRE careers and create a world-class program to prepare them for those opportunities.
At the university’s Lindner College of Business, professors have begun including real estate projects in the curriculum of core business classes. For example, a management course recently included a section on an urban redevelopment project in a low-income area of Cincinnati.
“It was a great way to expose general business students to some of the challenges and possibilities in real estate,” Bond said.
Within the real estate program, the university has fostered strong participation by industry leaders to provide students with dynamic and in-depth education plus opportunities outside the classroom. Local CRE professionals and companies participate in lectures, hard hat tours, monthly roundtables, a mentoring program and other events. When students in the Real Estate Club expressed interest in learning more about brokerage, “the university and one of the major firms in town organized an evening where the firm brought in brokers from several different sectors who talked about what it means to have a career in brokerage,” Bond said.
A pioneer of the co-op model of education, the University of Cincinnati facilitates co-op placements and internships for real estate students.
“Many of the top real estate firms in the region make use of this program and bring students in,” Bond said. While some students focus on developing a particular specialty through their work experiences, other students “will deliberately target different areas. They might work for a real estate developer, a financial institution and a REIT… Students can do up to three co-ops so they could get 18 months of pretty meaningful industry experience before they graduate.”
The university has also taken a geographically broad approach to educating real estate students. Each year, students have opportunities to participate in trips to other U.S. cities to learn about real estate developments, trends and challenges in other markets, and tour world-class developments, including recent tours of the New York City developments One Vanderbilt and Hudson Yards. The program also supports an international study program which regularly takes students to the United Kingdom.
“I think it’s terrific that students get to see real estate in other contexts,” Bond said. Students meet with a variety of firms and learn about best practices and trends in multiple markets. “I think it’s a good student who can understand bigger trends that are driving the industry and understand how they might impact their market.”
Efforts to steadily improve the real estate program at the University of Cincinnati have paid off. Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate courses, Bond said, has increased about 40 percent in the past four years and “we could have found jobs for another 20 students last year if we had them graduating. So it’s a good time to go into this industry.”
NAIOP is committed to the next generation of CRE leadership and increasing diversity in commercial real estate. We are proud to continue our scholarship program for students pursuing a degree which will lead to a career in the commercial real estate industry. Preference will be given to students who have been traditionally under-represented in the commercial real estate field.
Applications are accepted online. Application deadline: March 29, 2019.
Linda Strowbridge is a freelance business writer based in Baltimore, MD. A long-time journalist in Canada and the U.S., Linda now writes extensively about the built environment, economic development, green business and the insights of business leaders.