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Careers in Construction: Steps to Become a Construction Manager

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A construction project manager confers with a construction worker

Construction is a team sport. Whether it’s a house or a skyscraper, no large-scale project can be completed from top to bottom by one person alone. From the architects and engineers to all the specialized skilled trades working in the field, each player brings an irreplaceable piece to the puzzle. 

And just like any good team, a coach is needed to inspire and to offer strong leadership. Leaders empower teams to overcome obstacles and clench victory. 

Enter: the construction manager, recently ranked by U.S. News as the number one most desirable job in construction. 

What Does a Construction Manager Do? 

A construction manager is responsible for coordinating the harmonious flow of human work, communication, and material resources between the numerous specialized individuals and disparate departments involved in a project from its beginning to its end. Think of a building like a motion picture and the construction manager as the director. They may not have written the script (read: blueprints), but it’s the construction manager who’s on-site every day to make sure everyone is working in sync to bring the final production to life.   

Construction managers need mastery over a wide array of hard and soft skills to do their jobs correctly. Having practical experience and strong roots in the nuts-and-bolts of what goes into the day-to-day work of construction is a must. Construction management requires a high degree of emotional intelligence as well. Communication is key in this line of work: a good construction manager needs to understand people and be proficient at speaking the technical language of every worker on their crew, be they electricians and plumbers or roofers and siders. By the same token, construction managers also need to know how to negotiate contracts with clients and be able to communicate higher level ideas with a project’s engineering and architecture teams. On the business side of things, they need to be well versed in managerial strategies and know how to handle complex finances, from a project’s opening bid to its final budget line. Unlike a lot of careers in the industry, a construction manager also needs a Bachelor’s Degree, which we’ll explore more in greater detail below.  

A construction manager discusses project plans with construction worker

It’s easy to conflate the role of construction managers with that of architects or engineers. Just keep in mind that as critical as architects and engineers are to supplying the design and plans for a project, it’s through the stewardship of a construction manager that their shared vision gets off the launchpad and put into operation. 

How Much Do Construction Managers Make? Salary/Pay and Career Outlook Information 

An important question on everybody’s mind: Do construction mangers get paid well? Well, with added responsibility comes higher pay: the median salary of a construction manager is about $95,260, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, the median salary for most other construction jobs is $47,430.    

Overall, construction managers can expect to make an annual salary anywhere in the range of $56,000 to $165,000 per year. Compensation depends on a variety of factors, including location, level of experience, and employment sector. For example, a construction manager of 15 years overseeing a major commercial development in New York City can expect to earn more than a counterpart with five years of experience tasked with managing a single-family home construction project in small town Iowa. 

 Here’s a list of the top five states that pay construction managers the most:  

  1. New Jersey: $147,410 

  1. New York: $135,320 

  1. Delaware: $124,730 

  1. California: $121,540 

  1. Rhode Island: $120,000 

When it comes to context, broadly in the residential setting you might command an average salary north of 95 grand, while the commercial setting may pull in around $83,000, or around $68,000 in the industrial setting.  

What’s the job outlook for a construction manager?

Construction management is growing at a much faster rate than most other occupations, albeit not at the wildfire pace of wind and solar jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that construction management will grow at a rate of about 8% over the next 10 years. For comparison, management positions in all other professions are expected to only grow by about 3%. What’s more, almost 35,000 construction management jobs are expected to open up every year over the next decade.

Translation: The job outlook for construction management is very good. 

What kinds of jobs are available for construction managers?

Construction managers can work in a variety of sectors. Some are self-employed contractors who work in residential construction while others work at major firms on large-scale industrial, commercial, and public works projects. 

About 38% of construction managers were self-employed in 2019, according to the BLS. About 16% worked in non-residential construction, while another 8% worked on heavy duty civil engineering projects. 

If you’re looking to set your sights high, billion dollar companies like Jacobs, CBRE, and VCC are consistently ranked among the top most profitable construction management firms in the nation. 

Steps to Become a Construction Manager: Where Do I Sign Up?

You’re probably wondering, how do I become a construction manager?

The biggest thing that sets construction management apart from other careers in the industry is the educational requirement. One of the appeals about construction is that most jobs in the field can be launched into without attending an accredited four-year college. And while practical experience as a carpenter for example is invaluable, you’re ultimately going to need a bachelor’s degree if you want to become a construction manager.

Choosing the right school and program is always a challenge when thinking about college. According to the BLS, construction managers generally have a Bachelor’s Degree in one of the following areas: construction science, construction management, architecture, or engineering. 

Students in university classroom listening to lecture

Each path confers its own set of advantages, sharpening separate skills in unique ways that will enhance your ability to tackle different kinds of projects throughout your career. Keep in mind, also, that attending an Associate’s Degree program or certificate—which can be pursued through a community college, through an online program, or through a night school—can accommodate a number of scheduling and budget needs, and can get those necessary general classes out of the way quickly (sometimes in as little as one year), more economically, before you matriculate to your construction management Bachelor’s program. Sometimes if you’ve already pursued a technical trade through a community college Associate’s Degree program, some of your credits will count toward these general education requirements—so be sure to consult an academic advisor! 

While each of the degrees mentioned above will qualify you to work as a construction manager, choosing to specialize in one area over another may be beneficial depending on what you want to do in your career. For instance, maybe you know that you want to exclusively focus on managing bridge building projects once you’ve graduated from college. To do that, you’d likely want to be well grounded in a solid understanding of material strengths and structural analysis, among other fundamental concepts. In that case, a civil engineering degree might be the way to go.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the degrees that will prepare you for a career in construction management: 

  • Construction Management/Science: Some schools refer to this degree as construction management, others label it as construction science, while still others combine the names into one. These names are essentially interchangeable. The important thing to know is that most Bachelor’s programs with any combination of these words in the title will equip you with the hard and soft skills you’ll need for a leadership role in the construction industry. These kinds of programs are interdisciplinary in nature, designed to prepare you for the variety of different challenges that a construction manager handles every day on the job. In addition to learning foundational technical skills, you’ll take courses on cost estimation, business and managerial strategies, as well as risk management, construction law, and oral and written communication. If you’re starting a career in construction and know you want to go directly into management, this is a great fit for you.
  • Architecture: If you want to be an architect, you’re going to need to pursue education beyond a Bachelor’s Degree to secure a licensure. But training in architecture involves many of the same foundational skills and knowledge sets that are necessary to manage construction projects. For this reason, construction managementwhich doesn’t require specific licensure—is a viable alternative for someone with a degree in architecture who’s perhaps changed their career aspirations, is looking for more lucrative opportunities, or has decided that a Masters degree isn’t in the cards. 
  • Engineering: It’s not uncommon for construction managers to have Bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering. There’s a lot of overlap between these two disciplines, but generally speaking, civil engineers work more on the behind-the-scenes planning and design of a project, while construction managers play more of a hand in day-to-day operations from start to finish. Whereas a degree in construction management/science is aimed at generating well-rounded management material, a degree in civil engineering will go into much greater depth on the hard science of construction. Fluid mechanics, statistics, environmental impacts, material strength, hazardous waste proceduresthese are just some areas that a civil engineering degree will place a much tighter beam of focus on. Suffice to say, however, an educational background in engineering will absolutely prepare you for a role as a construction manager.

You might be wondering by now if you need to complete graduate studies in addition to a Bachelor’s Degree to become a construction manager. The short answer is no. However, you may not want to take the idea of further education off the table just yet. While most construction management jobs only require a Bachelor’s Degree, some advanced positions call for either additional certification or a Master’s Degree to be eligible. Another thing to think about: a Master’s Degree could also give you that extra edge you need to make your application standout in today’s highly competitive job market.

There are definite advantages and disadvantages to getting a Master’s Degree in construction management. Take the time you need to research and thoughtfully consider your options. At the end of the day, rest easy knowing that a Bachelor’s Degree is enough to get straight to work as a construction manager.

Moving Forward: What Does the Future Look Like for Construction Managers?

COVID-19, with its long-term effects on the construction industry, promises continue how construction managers do their job. On the bright side, the pandemic has spurred on the more rapid and widespread adoption of relatively new technologies like construction management software that can be woven into your project management plan. On the not-so-bright-side, the pandemic led to the delay and cancellation of many new construction projects nationwide, with 2020 ending in a 14% dip. A full recovery to pre-pandemic levels will likely be several years in the making.

There are, however, reasons for construction managers to be more optimistic about 2021. Multiple economic stimulus packages plus the rise in vaccinations across the US have industry leaders expecting an overall 4% increase in all new construction projects this year. What’s more, the dollar value of new commercial projects is also expected to rise by about 5%.  Another indicator worth paying attention to is overall job growth: A recent analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 430,000 construction jobs will need to be added this year to keep pace with the surge in demand.

A construction manager with tablet stands in front of two conferring construction workers

All of this means more work for construction managers. The terrain ahead is uncertain and we’re still not firing on all cylinders. But the tides are beginning to show signs of turning and management remains one of the most highly paid and sought-after careers in construction to pursue in the industry. If you’re a construction worker looking to advance to the next stage of your career, there’s no time like the present to take that first big step.