A M King and Purdue University: Building Construction’s Next Generation
My four years at Purdue University were punctuated by experiences that have uniquely prepared me for a successful career at A M King. It all started when I was recruited by a BCM professor in a Michigan hotel parking lot, an unexpected moment that showed me that opportunity is everywhere. Playing four intramural sports provided plenty of chances to react quickly for the benefit of my teams. Two study abroad programs—to Ireland and China—helped me build a foundation of knowledge and cultural awareness. Finally, my internship with A M King, started the summer after my junior year, opened my eyes to a better brand of Design-Build. Not only have I worked my way up to Assistant Project Manager in less than four years, but I also assist in recruiting at my Alma mater. Mind blown!
Purdue is one of A M King’s premier recruiting partners. Our team regularly lectures to Construction Management classes there and hosts Lunch & Learns for student professional associations. A M King also belongs to Purdue’s Construction Advisory Council (CAC), providing much needed industry perspectives to university professors and students.
Industry partners offer critical services at any time, but these relationships have become even more important during the pandemic. While we are doing our part, Purdue is not only filling gaps left by cancelled study abroad programs, for example, but also developing new courses that address needs that had not previously been met.
I recently spoke with Dr. Zeljko Torbica– otherwise known as “Dr. Z,” Professor and Head, School of Construction Management Technology (CMT) at Purdue. We discussed his background, CMT curriculum, recruiting and hiring trends for construction management majors—which brings me round trip! He has made bold changes since joining the University not quite two years ago and despite the challenges during this unprecedented year, Dr. Z’s objective is to help each and every CMT student achieve long-term success.
Caleb: You’ve said, “There is no more rewarding and fulfilling job than the education of future industry leaders.” Tell us about your own education and experiences that captured your interest in construction.
Dr. Z: I was born in Yugoslavia, which broke up into six independent countries in the 90s. So now, my country of birth is Montenegro, a beautiful small country located on the Adriatic Sea. As a child, I was always fascinated with big structures, particularly with bridges and dams. As I would be observing a 700-foot-high concrete arch dam, I would wonder, who were the people capable of designing such a beautiful and intimidating structure?
I studied structural engineering at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, and subsequently started working for the best AEC company in southeastern Europe, Energoprojekt (EP).
Caleb: Describe your transition from the design role to the managerial aspects of construction.
Dr. Z: I quickly realized that no matter how much savings could result from a good and original structural design, the execution phase (construction) is when these savings could be quickly nullified—sometimes in a single day, due to the minor and major “imperfections” that are taking place on a typical construction site. I became more interested with organizational and business aspects of projects.
Eventually I stopped practicing structural engineering and became fully consumed with “construction management” assignments. In 1992 I came to the United States to start my PhD studies at Rinker School of Construction Management at University of Florida. My plan was to get my degree and return to work for EP, but as it happens in life, my plans changed, and I decided to stay.
Caleb: How did you make your way to Purdue?
Dr. Z: My academic career started in 1996 and has spanned six prominent universities. In 2019 I was honored to be selected as head of the School of Construction Management Technology (CMT) at Purdue.
Why did I choose Purdue University? Two reasons: Purdue’s reputation of being one of the best construction management programs in the world, and their fascinating transformation of the undergraduate curriculum. I felt that I could make a great contribution to these efforts.
Caleb: What’s unique about Purdue’s CMT program?
Dr. Z: The main idea behind the curriculum transformation was horizontal and vertical integration of student learning outcomes in an authentic, project-based, team-taught environment. We are not aware of any other academic program that has attempted to implement an integration of this magnitude encompassing the entire four-year curriculum.
Since there is no roadmap to follow, we have had to demonstrate a great deal of creativity and ingenuity in implementing this initiative. Two of the recent developments in the program are the additions of (1) a new undergraduate major in Design and Construction Integration, and (2) the “Degree in 3” option. Establishment of these new offerings was motivated by the specific industry needs that were not previously well served.
Caleb: Bright spots?
Dr. Z: The last few years have been very good to us. In general, all our students have been able to secure their internships. Our job placement has been practically 100 percent. We are having record number of companies attending our career fairs (for example, 196 companies participated in the pre-pandemic Fall 2019 career fair). We welcomed 67 new first-year undergraduate students in fall 2020 (37% increase compared to fall 2019).
Our online MS program, which was ranked #4 nationally in 2020, has grown to 62 active students (19% increase compared to Fall 2019). Our CAC, which A M King is a member of, typically has more than 70 company members. Finally, in less than two years the School will have a new home in a beautiful $140 million Gateway building (see lead photo at top of blog).
Caleb: I never would have imagined living through a pandemic like this one. How have you shifted gears to meet student needs this past year?
Dr. Z: Our undergraduate program was never intended to be offered online- all CM courses are designed as in-person classes. So, we faced an enormous challenge a year ago when COVID-19 hit and we had to abruptly switch to a “remote” instructional mode halfway through the spring semester. And we did a pretty good job with almost seamless transition from “face-to-face” to complete “remote” instructions. Then we spent all our summer preparing for a safe, on-campus student experience in the fall.
Caleb: What has the outcome been?
Dr. Z: Even under pandemic conditions, I believe all our students were able to secure their internships; several students reported that their internships were canceled, but with efforts from our faculty and outreach coordinator, we were able to place them with other firms. Our Fall 2020 graduating class has a 100 percent placement rate for graduates who were actively looking for employment.
We did lose several CAC members who decided not to return this year, mainly because of COVID-19. Also, our Fall 2020 virtual career fair hosted “only” 144 companies, which was about 30 percent less than what we would expect in a regular in-person fall career fair.
Caleb: What can industry partners do to help universities during these tough economic times?
Dr. Z: We have been blessed with the consistent support from our industry partners, which comes in various forms. Two of the most important aspects of support are: internships for our current students and, of course, employment for our graduates. In terms of financial support, some of the student sponsorships that can be supported by our industry partners include: Student Competition Team Sponsorships, National Association Meeting Sponsors, Study Abroad Program Support, Senior Graduation Reception, New Student Welcome Reception, Field Trips and Alumni Regional Receptions and Forums.
Caleb: Which markets seem to be most open to hiring young people who studied construction management?
Dr. Z: I am cautiously optimistic about the 2021 economic outlook. We are seeing some positive signs that are suggesting that the economy is still expanding, despite setbacks from last year. Most lockdown losses have been partially offset by relatively strong job growth. In the nonresidential sector, for example, construction of industrial space in the Indianapolis market is a bright spot, with possibility that completed projects in 2020 broke 2019’s record.
A general contractor in the Cleveland area reported that his industrial backlogs have doubled over the past two months. Arkansas and Louisville markets expect industrial properties for distribution, warehousing and manufacturing to remain in high demand. In Utah, there has been an increased demand for office and hotel space due to population growth in the area. I am purposely placing emphasis on positive reports, although many markets have remained sluggish due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Caleb: So, what’s the bottom line?
Dr. Z: I am optimistic that the construction market will need a significant number of future Construction Management graduates going forward. It will then be the employer’s responsibility to take that talent and provide the path that will develop these young people into top-notch professionals and specialists.
Željko “Z” Torbica is Professor and Head of the School of Construction Management Technology at Purdue University. Dr. Torbica’s international experience of more than 30 years includes both academic positions at several leading U.S. universities and an extensive and industry-recognized background in engineering, construction, real estate development, leadership and strategic planning. During his career, Dr. Torbica has received a number of distinguished awards; served as the conference keynote speaker at international conferences; published articles in the most selective professional journals; directed real estate development operations, with projects ranging from $50 million to $550 million; served on the prestigious Baldrige National Quality Award Board of Examiners; and completed leadership programs at Columbia University and Harvard University. Dr. Torbica received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Florida. Dr. Torbica is a Fellow of American Society for Quality, Certified General Contractor in the state of Florida, and holds Project Management Professional (PMP) and Quality Engineer (QE) certifications.