With the increasing complexity of constructing and maintaining facilities, there has been a growing need for architects, engineers and constructors to supplement their technical and managerial skills through advanced degrees in management.
The means to acquire additional technical expertise has been addressed quite adequately by a variety of master’s degree programs at many universities throughout the country, but the challenge to impart the requisite managerial skills has not been satisfied very effectively.
The latter is based on the premise that an MBA education is not ideal for managing large public and private projects, which require managers with considerable technical expertise, as well as managerial skills.
The Master of Project Management (MPM) program at Northwestern University has been established in response to this specific need in the construction industry.
The program’s multidisciplinary approach combines essential components of design, engineering and construction with business management and behavioral science to develop technically qualified individuals for responsible management roles in the design, construction, and operation of major engineering projects.
The six (6) features that make this program particularly responsive to today’s needs are
- courses taught almost exclusively by a faculty of more than 20 high-level practitioners
- truly global student body, to enhance the multicultural nature of the current market
- flexible and custom-designed course selections to meet the needs and objectives of each individual
- dynamic program with courses are added or deleted as the situation dictates
- courses scheduled to accommodate both full-time and part-time students
- strong emphasis placed on the development and improvement of communication skills, both oral and written.
One of the major impediments to the more widespread implementation of this program is the fact that the AEC industry, as a whole, is not very supportive of employee participation – both in terms of financial remuneration for tuition and time-off to attend classes.
In 1990 more than 150 undergraduate construction programs were in existence, and these programs essentially followed three tracks:
- an engineering base (civil engineering programs)
- an architecture base (building construction programs)
- other non-engineering or non-architecture base (construction science or construction technology programs).
In his discussion of these programs, Oglesby (1990) opined that:
“There is no chance, given the crowded curricula of any of the four-year programs, to make substantial additions to them….To cope with this problem there seem to be no alternative but to extend the curriculum to incorporate a fifth year of study, largely devoted to courses but possibly incorporating some electives when they can be made available,…”
Some years later, Goodman and Chinowsky5 discussed some of the challenges faced by undergraduate and graduate programs regarding managerial education and stated that:
“At the undergraduate level, university programs are charged with providing students with a broad foundation in both general and technical subjects. With the continuing expansion of these areas, construction programs have been forced to narrow their individual areas of emphasis.”
However, it seems that needed changes are finally on the horizon for university programs. The new criteria for accrediting civil engineering undergraduate programs states that6:
“The program must demonstrate that graduates … explain basic concepts in management, business, public policy, and leadership, …”
Master of Project Management Program
Motivated by the forgoing situation, the Master of Project Management (MPM) program grew from a conviction that there existed a need in the profession for a more holistic engineer with an ability to blend a modest breadth of engineering expertise and experience with the management and communication skills required to develop and execute a major engineering project from its conceptual stage through completion and even beyond into its operational and maintenance phases.
Although there existed at various universities throughout the country a variety of more focused programs generally addressing the more technical aspects of “how to construct a project”, none covered the breadth visualized by this program.
Based on the above premise and the challenge to avoid competition or overlap with other management programs on campus (e.g. Kellogg MBA program), the mission of the Master of Project Management program was established as:
“To prepare technically qualified individuals for responsible management roles in the construction and operation of major civil engineering projects.”
This mission is accomplished by customizing a multi-disciplinary combination of specialized management oriented courses and regular university courses taught by practicing professionals and regular university faculty.
From the very outset it was known that this program could not be taught completely by regular in-house faculty and that most of the faculty would have to be forward-thinking successful practitioners.
The concept and goal of this program were endorsed strongly by our external Civil Engineering Advisory Committee, who are a diverse group of industry leaders.
Within this framework, our vision is:
“To be the best program in the world wherein early- to mid-level engineers and architects can complement their technical expertise with the management skills needed to facilitate their advancement in the corporate structure.”
MBA vs. MS Degree in Project Management
MBA programs typically provide a broad-based education in business and management concepts that are generally applicable to a wide variety of fields.
In contrast, the MS in Project Management program focuses on the more specific practical business perspective and planning skills needed by civil engineering project managers to execute effectively the processes required to deliver a quality project on time and within budget.
Relative to a traditional technical master’s degree program in a specific field (structures, foundations, transportation, and so forth), the MS in Project Management program provides a more holistic overview of the civil engineering field within the business perspective needed by a project manager to integrate the variety of technical, financial, and social challenges inherent in the successful completion of a civil engineering project.
The program has three components:
- completion of coursework
- attendance at a seminar series
- improvement of communication skills
Students are required to take twelve courses and have a minimum B average for graduation. The courses are a combination of
- business courses, such accounting, finance, and law
- general construction “bread and butter” courses, such as, estimating and scheduling
- construction-related elective courses
The latter group includes some traditional courses, such as business development, business strategy, and cost control, and avant-garde courses such as sustainability in construction, information technology, and e-business.
Overall, about 75% of the courses are traditional construction management courses and the remaining 25% are avant-garde courses.
The program does not include any technical courses dealing with means and methods, because its focus is to prepare individuals to work in mid-management and executive levels of the industry.
Teamwork and mutual interaction are emphasized in many of the courses.
The majority of the courses are taught by practitioners who bring a wealth of knowledge and real world experience to the classroom, and these courses are supplemented by appropriate courses from the regular University offerings.
The formal courses are supplemented by a weekly seminar series to add a modicum of real world exposure to the students.
The seminars are presented by highly respected professionals and normally address issues related to the use of management skills to resolve the complex set of interactive problems associated with a particular project. As a fringe benefit, many of the speakers represent potential sources of employment for our graduates.
Improving communication skills has been a cornerstone of the MPM program from its inception.
Students are required to prepare a capstone report on a topic of their choice and present it in accordance with professional standards. To help them achieve this requirement, a series of communication workshops that stress writing and presentation skills is offered throughout the year by communication professionals who are retained by the program.
Although the content of this report must be technically correct, the emphasis of this requirement is aimed toward the improvement of communication skills and not the establishment or formulation of some novel research finding.
Although students in the MPM program have access to any appropriate and available course in the University, the heart of the program is the 20 plus high-level professionals who comprise our adjunct faculty.
In addition to their vast knowledge and experience, these individuals bring to the classroom an enviable degree of enthusiasm in the opportunity to give back to the profession by instructing the next generation of project managers.
Notwithstanding the four specializations offered in the program, the primary interest of the students to date has overwhelmingly been construction management.
The program has had relatively few students pursue the environmental management, infrastructure management, and AEC business management specializations.
Virtually all of our students undertake the program on their own initiative with little or no encouragement from many of the companies for which they work (in fact, some companies make it difficult for students to take courses and most only subsidize their employees at a rather low level).
This is a continuing manifestation of the previously mentioned lack of the construction industry investment and support for such educational programs.
In general, companies do not send students to the program, although in recent years they have readily and aggressively hired graduates of the program.
The program is flexible enough to attract both full-time and part-time students, as well as both domestic and international students.
At any given time, part-time students comprise about half of the class and the other half consists of full-time students. Since international students must register full-time to satisfy visa requirements, they typically complete the program in half the time of a part-time student.
To create a sense of collegiality among the students with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds (domestic and international; part-time and full-time; civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers and architects) and varying levels of experience (from one year to more than 20 years, averaging about 3 to 4 years), a social committee consisting of three or four students arranges a variety of social activities, ranging from pizza parties to attending professional sports games and ski trips.
In June of each year the program hosts a brunch to which all students, graduates, faculty, seminar speakers, and “friends of the program” are invited. A large number of alumni and alumnae maintain the relationships developed as students through their professional and social activities.
Most of our students have come to the program as a consequence of our web site and/or personal referrals.
Educating project managers for the construction industry has changed considerably with the increased complexities of the projects and the environment in which we currently operate.
While there are many construction oriented programs throughout the United States, the MPM program at Northwestern University has some attributes that make it a combination of traditional construction management education and executive managerial training.
The strengths of the Master of Project Management (MPM) program are its
- high level practitioner faculty
- germane content of the courses
- dynamic and responsive curriculum
- honing of teamwork
- synergies resulting from an international student body
- emphasis on improving communication skills
- customized program for each individual student
- frequent interactive discussions among all parties involved in the program
- prestige of Northwestern University
- benefits of the greater metropolitan Chicago area.
In contrast, weaknesses of the Master of Project Management (MPM) program are
- relatively low pay scale of civil engineers relative to other engineers
- generally weak company support for employees
- tuition at Northwestern University
- the newness of specific subject area at Northwestern University
- the need for a stronger role in fostering placement opportunities
On balance, however, our 20-year experience with this program suggests a bright future and the potential for meaningful expansion.
Blog post adapted from: Educating Project Managers for the Construction Industry by Raymond J. Krizek, Stanley F. Pepper Professor & Program Director, Master of Project Management, and Ahmad Hadavi, Associate Director, Master of Project Management
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Northwestern University, originally published in © American Society of Engineering Education, 2007
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- Carr, R. I. (1997). “Engineering and Construction Management: Leadership and Opportunity.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, ASCE, 123 (3), 292-296.
- Berger, L. (1996). “Emerging Role of Management in Civil Engineering.” Journal of Management in Engineering, ASCE, 12 (4), 37-39.
- Oglesby, C. H. (1990). “Dilemmas Facing Construction Education and Research in 1990s.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, ASCE, 116 (1), 4-17.
- Goodman, R. E. and Chinowsky, P. S. (1997).”Preparing Construction Professionals for Executive Decision Making.” Journal of Management in Engineering, ASCE, 13 (6), 55-61.
- ASCE (2006). “Proposed Changes to the Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs.”
- ASCE (2006). “Raise the Bar” Newsletter, 3 (3).