January 15, 2006
"You have to love it"
Special to The Seattle Times
KEVIN P. CASEY / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
The demand is strong and the money may be good, but it doesn't come easy.
Construction project management is not a casual 9-to-5 job; it's not the kind of work you leave behind at the end of the day.
"You don't see a lot of old project managers," says Andy Larsen, project manager for Skanska at Alley 24, an office building nearing completion in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. "It's highly stressful, but very rewarding. You have to love it."
That's especially true given the kind of people who are on the job with him every day.
"A lot of the supers and 'old school' guys have a different approach to work. It's like Old World vs. new. They have an incredible work ethic. These are guys that are driving in from Port Orchard in order to be on the job at 5 a.m.
"So when you complain about your commute from Bellevue to Seattle to get in at 7, well, that doesn't cut it. You need to be accountable from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. because you're working with a lot of guys who work really hard."
More than just love of the job, Larsen says, a good project manager has to be honest, ethical and fair, and not just because it's the right thing to do. It is a business, he says, reliant on trust and integrity.
After all, he's making sure people's hopes and dreams and big investments are built.
Knowing the difference between a drywall nail and a common nail is not what makes someone succeed at construction management. It's people skills, the ability to relate to people on many levels from an engineer with a Ph.D. to someone who has grown up in the trades.
"Some days you're the liaison between the field, the architect and the owner," says Larsen. "You're constantly trying to get agreement or buy-in or approval."
That means doing everything from evaluating costs to presenting issues from the field to the designers to explaining to an owner why a $40,000 increase is necessary.
A lot of misconceptions exist about construction management, including the idea that being good with your hands is a good foundation.
In fact, only a small part of Larsen's day is spent on site; much of his time is spent behind a computer, planning budgets, adjusting timelines and other tasks.
As a construction project manager he is responsible for ensuring all aspects of a building project coalesce on time and within budget.
He's in on the job from the beginning; creating the budget, supervising subcontractors and most important, keeping the design team, owner and builders on schedule.
That's where the balancing act comes in. In response to such issues, a project manager has to be able to look at the big picture, break it into individual elements and shift things around. Larsen has to be able to make changes and make decisions.
"A lot of projects follow you into the night. You worry more about not making a decision than whether it is the right or wrong one. Not every decision we make can be right for everybody involved. If everybody had to agree, we would still be pouring the foundation of this building.
"The impact of indecision is almost always worse than the wrong decision," says Larsen.
So, are guys like Larsen born, or built?
Built, most would say. While the job requires advanced knowledge of such concepts as budgeting, it also requires knowledge of the means, methods and materials of construction.
The University of Washington offers two ways to get that knowledge: a bachelor's degree in construction management, or the construction-management certificate program.
The former attract undergrads while the latter draws people from the trades and related industries looking to make a change.
Either path has paid off for those entering it in recent years. Construction management has been one of the hottest fields around.
Over the past 11 years the UW's undergrad program has placed 100 percent of its graduates about 50 students a year, says John Schaufelberger, chairman of the UW construction-management program.
The ability to land a job may not be the only thing attracting people to construction management. Salaries in this industry are enough to make even a business major think twice.
The average salary for a project engineer where most project managers spend the first five to 10 years of their career is currently about $63,000, according to the Construction Management Association of America.
Depending on experience, project managers average yearly salaries of about $84,000 and senior project managers average about $107,000, according to Salary.com.
Bachelor's degree at the UW: http://depts.washington.edu/cmweb/
Certificate in construction management through UW Extension: www.extension.washington.edu/ext/certificates/cmg/cmg_gen.asp.
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