DBA to construction science.
May 10, 2009 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Is it too late to start a new a career in construction?

I've been a database admin/analyst working on large software implementations for the last 10 years, and... I think I'm done with it. The pallor from spending all daylight hours in a server room, breathlessly refreshing blogs and writing idiotic shell scripts with variable names based on memes and inside jokes, and trying not to roll my eyes in meetings when management over-promises or outright offers up vapourware to potential clients...

I've been toying with the idea of applying for a 4-year Construction Science and Management program - I love the idea of working with something tangible and solid, and maybe refocusing existing skills at planning, design, analysis and negotiation. I want to use brain and work with my hands... and actually get a degree! It's bothering me more and more that I never got one.

Can anyone tell me what this (or similar) programs are actually like? Am I too old to try to change to a construction career (although this program does have a co-op component, which may help me get a foot in a door somewhere)? What kind of jobs could I reasonably hope to get after finishing this degree and starting out in the field in my mid-30s?
posted by grippycat to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
One of my good friends did this about 7 years ago, he had to swing a hammer for a few years but he was able to exchange his management and technical experience in to a project/program management role.
posted by iamabot at 12:49 PM on May 10, 2009


You do realize that the bottom has fallen out of the construction industry in the past few years, yes? New building is at record lows, and construction workers, even unionized ones, are chronically unemployed/underemployed. I know several such workers who get about six months of actual work per year (at best) and cobble together a living as best they can with odd jobs the rest of the time. All of them do good work. None of them are really making it. One family is cramming six people into a two bedroom house.

Things are so bad that states like Indiana are considering reclassifying construction workers as seasonal employees to preclude their eligibility for unemployment benefits, as they're unemployed so often that they cost the government tons and tons of money.

I'd strongly advise against voluntarily going into construction, not because of your age, but because there are far more workers than there is work for them to do at the moment, and that doesn't look like it's going to change for at least a few years. Even assuming the economy picks up at the end of the quarter--and I'm pretty convinced that it won't--there's going to have to be a ton of new construction projects planned just to absorb the current glut of unemployed workers. As these projects generally take months to years of planning before anyone actually shows up at a site, we could be looking at a bad time of it until the middle of the next decade.
posted by valkyryn at 12:57 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I work in construction, though my job has very little to do with actual construction, and I can confirm that this is probably the worst time to be getting into the construction industry. Things are really, really bad in the construction industry right now. Companies are buying work to stay afloat, which is a terrible position to be in. Construction is usually the first industry to rebound out of a recession, that hasn't happened yet. There's work in the pipeline, and things are starting to look up, but when companies are bidding work to just to get cashflow without any regard to solvency or sound business decisions, things could easily get worse before they get better.

I should say that things looked far worse in the troubles of late 2008, in that actual work is now being put out to bid.
posted by geoff. at 1:15 PM on May 10, 2009


Best answer: Well, Ontario does have a fair amount of infrastructure work in the pipeline. There are a lot of people seeing construction costs going back up in the next six months, after all the "shovel ready projects" start. Having said that, residential and commercial work is dead here too, and these jobs will all be done in early 2011, before you graduate. I work in construction in Toronto, on the consulting side, and we haven't laid anyone off, but aren't recruiting either. Tender results have gotten shockingly low.

Can anyone tell me what this (or similar) programs are actually like?
I know nothing about that program, but assume it will teach you some construction technology, procurement methods, standard forms of construction contracts, the estimating formats used in the industry in ON, scheduling, and elements of construction law, neotiation, management and economics. You'll likely want to supplement the book-learning with summer work in industry. AFP is the big buzzword now, so they'll likely deal with that in some way. But again, I know nothing about this course.

Am I too old to try to change to a construction career (although this program does have a co-op component, which may help me get a foot in a door somewhere?
Nah, I don't think so, and having seen some resumes from GB assume your classmates will likely include a number of construction professionals your age from outside Canada looking to get local qualifications.

What kind of jobs could I reasonably hope to get after finishing this degree and starting out in the field in my mid-30s?
I'd guess (only a guess!) that it's geared to send you into assistant project manager roles at large construction firms and for firms that act as project managers for owners. Maybe municipalities and institutions like universities too? They often have large project management groups. I'd ask the careers office, they should be happy to help.

Also, I know nothing about IT or what DBA is, but imagine you could finagle your former roles into an "expert in CAD/primavera/info sharing programs/whatever" spin if necessary for getting summer work and so forth. There are lots of people who don't want to deal with the technology.

Some suggestions: Get on linkedin.com and hook up with people who did this course and some of the (many!) construction recruiters on there and ask the same questions you're asking here. Get a list of who recruits from this program from the college - I assume the big contractors like Vanbots, some smaller firms, and some project mngmnt consultancies? - and do some informational interviews. Start subscribing to the Canada-specific Reed Construction Data blogs/feeds to get a sense of how the industry is doing.
posted by jamesonandwater at 1:24 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: geoff.: thank you for the email! I furiously google now...
jamesonandwater: looking for recruiters and course graduates on linkedin is an excellent suggestion, I will do that!
valkyryn: do you believe that's also true for Canada (and graduation would be 4 years in the future, giving the local economy time to rest and recover a bit)

To clarify on my goals with taking this program - I want to integrate my IT experience into construction, not back away from computers forever; I'm good at what I do, I just don't want to be just in software anymore and I'm looking for a fairly big change.
posted by grippycat at 1:55 PM on May 10, 2009


Best answer: I am going to preface this by stating that most of my experience in this very field has been with high school students interested in careers in construction, architecture and engineering--not "second-career" types like you. But, I do think I have some insight into what you are asking about.

I think it's a perfect time to get into construction, either in the trades or in management/support roles. While residential construction is down across the US, in many areas in commerical and industrial construction are not. That means that schools, hospitals, retail centers and power plants are still being constructed and/or retrofitted. I don't have any info on construction in Canada, but I would assume it's a similar situation.

There are two main areas I think you should consider focusing on: BIM (building information management) and LEED/green building.

BIM is essentially the remote-control operation of mechanical systems (HVAC) and associated services. So you can be in a control center in, say, Chicago and remotely control the temperatures of a building in Stockholm. It is a new "layer" of drawings in the design phase--ties in with the mechanical systems drawings--and people are needed to assist on new construction and retrofits of old buildings. This may appeal to you since you are currently in IT.

LEED certification refers to both people and buildings. I know of many project managers who are LEED certified. New buildings can be built to LEED specs or retrofitted to LEED specs. The US Green Building Council has more info on that. There may be a Canadian equivalent; I don't know. But LEED is big in the US.

Construction is much more than swinging a hammer. It's estimating, planning, supply chain, accounting, insurance, financing... and good people, dedicated workers who have common sense and know what the heck they are doing, are definitely needed. I think older people make great students in general because most of us have come to a realization that success can be attained in pretty much anything we want to do. Identifying a career goal at age 18 is a lot different that identifying a career goal at age 32. You are generally more settled down and focused, and have figured out the best ways for you to succeed, when you are older.

Construction companies look for several things when they hire, but the most important are going to be safety (focusing on your safety and your fellow worker's, even if you are sitting in an office--this includes passing a drug screen), reliability (can you show up on time, even early? Construction starts early, and you're on call--I have heard more than one story of a crane hitting a neighboring building at 4:30 AM. Guess who had to go to the site to calm the neighbor down? The manager), and common sense. Maturity plays a big part in all of this.

This is a very vibrant and interesting field. I think you will enjoy it. Best of luck.
posted by FergieBelle at 2:23 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I'm going to interpret the exact same signs and give you the exact opposite answer.

Construction is in a horrible low, definitely worse than it has been since at least the span from 80-83, and perhaps even longer. I don't know beyond that because the folks I talk to weren't really as established in the industry. So, if your goal were to get a new construction job right now, I'd say you have a tough road.

But, the way I read your goal, it is to go to school for four years, likely doing whatever work you can, and then get a job in construction. If so, I think your timing would be about perfect.

This job market is going to push a lot of folks away from construction who were already disillusioned. Likewise, current and recent graduates will have to find work in other fields just to make ends meet, and many will likely stay in their new vocation. At the beginning of the recovery the job market will soak up existing talent that has hung on. But then it will need to grow.

The period from 90-95 was a very bad one in architecture, and I benefited greatly from that by graduating in 98 into a relative workers market. Even more so, I have had more rapid career advancement because there is a dearth of workers in the experience range just above me (now about 15 years). You may be able to benefit from a similar phenomenon.

Also, be aware that the construction industry lags about 20 years in the technology department. I still work with contractors (subs) who don't have e-mail, and the notion of being able to scan a document to pdf is pretty slick stuff. You will have some serious culture shock coming from an IT background, but will also have lots to offer. BIM (Building Information Management, aka 3D models with embedded specification information) is now here and in use on large projects, and I expect explosive growth in this area once the recession clears. Good construction management companies will be soaking up individuals with the skills to work with these tools.

Bonus points if you have a genuine drive to become a resource expert in the gritty details of how to actually *do* the green building movement effectively.

Drop a message to me if you have more questions, and good luck!
posted by meinvt at 2:24 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: FergieBelle, meinvt: BIM sounds exactly up my alley! A quick wiki search defines it as:

"an object-oriented building development tool that utilizes 5-D modeling concepts, information technology and software interoperability to design, construct and operate a building project, as well as communicate its details."

Does that sound about right? I'm getting a big excited happy thinking about playing with an entirely new world of systems integration...

What courses/schools would the hive recommend if I was to seriously pursue this for September? Ontario is preferred, but heck, I'll travel!
posted by grippycat at 2:37 PM on May 10, 2009


BIM isn't really used beyond being a buzzword. It is more of a way to get the construction to start thinking of data as something that can be structured and defined with various attributes. The most visible wow factor is, of course, the 3D architectural models that are used to detect collisions, create estimates and schedules. Right now this is very much in its infancy, with very few projects using this. It requires that subcontractors, architect and everyone involve get in with the system, and as mentioned before, the industry as a whole is way pre-1995. The only people I know doing this now, outside of specific engineer heavy projects like process piping and such, have to build the building twice, once in a 3D modeler and again in real life. Again, the economics just aren't there outside of huge $100mm+ projects. The workflow is nasty, the market really hasn't matured for 3d modeling to make it an accessible commodity, it is labor intensive and expensive.

Other aspects of BIM, like RFID tagging of some deliverables (which is really where traditional manufacturers were in the 90s with just-in-time inventory ...) are starting to show up. You're also seeing some acceptance of red-lining, which is to take an autocad drawing and do markup in the field, missing a light fixture? Mark it directly onto the drawing. The technological sophistication isn't really there for most field workers to do this, and there's no rush to embrace it. Again, there are a lot of reasons for this beyond the fact that some people don't know how to use computers.

I've also seen development in an XML language for construction, to facilitate the nasty paperwork that takes place. Construction deals with all sorts of companies, in varying industries, so the acceptance of common practices and document workflow is not surprisingly non-existent.
posted by geoff. at 5:33 PM on May 10, 2009


BIM is essentially the remote-control operation of mechanical systems (HVAC) and associated services. So you can be in a control center in, say, Chicago and remotely control the temperatures of a building in Stockholm. It is a new "layer" of drawings in the design phase--ties in with the mechanical systems drawings--and people are needed to assist on new construction and retrofits of old buildings. This may appeal to you since you are currently in IT.

In my experience, BIM stands for Building Information Modelling, which is done with Revit and similar programs. It isn't just a new layer in drawings, it's a new way of formatting construction drawings, schedules, specifications and manuals that's entirely different from previous methods (like AutoCAD or pencil and paper), and it deals with a lot more than just building systems, although I'd say building systems probably benefit the most from the new method. But, I generally work on the design side, not the building operations side - it's entirely possible that there's two valid uses for the term.

LEED certification refers to both people and buildings. I know of many project managers who are LEED certified. New buildings can be built to LEED specs or retrofitted to LEED specs. The US Green Building Council has more info on that. There may be a Canadian equivalent; I don't know. But LEED is big in the US.

I know what you're saying, but technically, LEED only certifies buildings. People are accredited. LEED accreditation is a fairly simple process - you basically just take a test - but can be a little expensive, and the process just changed to include a couple tiers of expertise. I just became accredited a couple weeks ago under the old system to avoid that. The Canadian version of the USGBC is CaGBC. If you're just getting into construction now, it'll be a number of years before you're ready to attempt accreditation - the test and support documentation assume a level of familiarity with construction terminology and methods that will take additional time to learn on top of just the LEED process and credit requirements. Get into construction first, then start worrying about whether you want to do LEED or not. One thing to note is that some building departments are starting to require the equivalent of LEED certification to obtain a certificate of occupancy (the document that says you can actually use your building), so it is becoming more prevalent.

I would second meinvt in that if you're going into school *now*, things will probably be better by the time you graduate, so don't worry so much about people talking about how horrible the market is; but do be aware that it's very, very cyclical. I graduated about the same time as meinvt, and had a pretty good run in the architecture field up until December.
posted by LionIndex at 5:45 PM on May 10, 2009


Right now this is very much in its infancy, with very few projects using this. It requires that subcontractors, architect and everyone involve get in with the system, and as mentioned before, the industry as a whole is way pre-1995. The only people I know doing this now, outside of specific engineer heavy projects like process piping and such, have to build the building twice, once in a 3D modeler and again in real life. Again, the economics just aren't there outside of huge $100mm+ projects. The workflow is nasty, the market really hasn't matured for 3d modeling to make it an accessible commodity, it is labor intensive and expensive.

I think with the recession, a lot of firms are gearing up to be total-BIM-oriented on the other side of the downturn. Just about every job I've seen advertised (there's been about 6 the last 5 months) has specifically requested BIM construction document experience - especially so for firms that do government/education and hospital work. It might not be that big of a deal now, but it will be in a couple years. The construction side may lag behind the design side a bit, but switching over is almost all upside for builders, aside from the hassle of having to learn a new program.
posted by LionIndex at 5:54 PM on May 10, 2009


Best answer: My father was in sales until he was about 40. He then got a job as a project manager for a subdivision development until the company went tits up five years later. He was 45 and unemployed, with no college education. Nobody wanted to hire him, so he decided to strike out on his own as a contractor. Twenty years of hard work (and patience) later, he has a successful company doing commercial and high-end home renovations.

The company has no shortage of work (we live in Newfoundland and we're not really feeling this economic crunch as hard). Dad works with some very talented engineers, carpenters, architects, etc. Together, they have brought many creative and innovate designs to life. I'm not in the family business, but I've been around it for the last twenty years. I had a look at the .pdf from the program you are interested in and I have to say, it looks very comprehensive. You have lots of options and four years to get your feet wet. I say go for it. Good luck!
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:06 PM on May 10, 2009


Best answer: Thirding BIM. Engineering News Record has had some good recent articles about BIM and the projects used to build them. Keep in mind that if you're the BIM guy, you will probably not be out in the field getting a farmer's tan, but rather more of a backoffice guy. You'll still be able to get out once in a while and probably will attend regular planning meetings, but you won't be driving the backhoe.
posted by electroboy at 6:54 AM on May 11, 2009


Keep in mind that if you're the BIM guy, you will probably not be out in the field getting a farmer's tan, but rather more of a backoffice guy. You'll still be able to get out once in a while and probably will attend regular planning meetings, but you won't be driving the backhoe.

If he's trying to get into construction via schooling rather than working his way up through the trades, I think that would probably be the case anyway.
posted by LionIndex at 7:42 PM on May 11, 2009


Sure, but when someone says they want to "work with their hands" they usually don't mean computers.
posted by electroboy at 8:23 PM on May 11, 2009


Yeah, but I think it's likely that he or she's going to be disappointed in that regard. Unless they come up through the trades, even if they actually get out on site in a superintendent role, they're not likely to actually do much manual labor. It could be quite possible to be some sort of construction manager and have a trailer on site though - you'd just be working on budgeting and scheduling most of the time.
posted by LionIndex at 9:43 PM on May 11, 2009


Superintendent isn't likely, since you need to know quite a bit about construction, but that would allow you to be onsite and do a little actual work sometimes. It would be something to work towards, if that's what you'd like to do. Construction management gives you an opportunity try things out as well, but more along the lines of asking the super "Hey, that looks neat, could I try that?" If you have a cooperative super or foreman it could work, but it all depends.

I've worked for construction companies that are pretty hands on with their engineering/managers but others have pretty strict divisions of labor. I think there's definitely a benefit to learning how to do those things, but having an degreed engineer doing manual labor is sort of a waste of schooling.

One other thing you might consider. Some of the construction unions like heavy equipment operators and plumbers have apprenticeship programs. If you're really interested, that might be a possibility as well.
posted by electroboy at 8:44 AM on May 12, 2009


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