There is a debate within construction management programs in colleges and universities spanning the last three decades as to how much engineering should be taught as opposed to construction management. Because there is more combined subject-matter that could be taught than will conveniently fit within a 4-year degree program, there has and still is a tension between two approaches. One approach favors more technical education in mathematics, engineering, and the basics of architectural design, while the traditional construction management approach favors classes in estimating, planning, scheduling, cost-control, jobsite safety programs, finance, and project management.
Over the last decade or two, college construction management programs that previously tilted toward a more engineering based focus…are now shifting back towards a greater emphasis upon pure construction management, to meet the demands of the industry. Large building construction companies are telling colleges they want new graduates coming out of construction management programs to have more skills in project management, and to possess a familiarity and facility with the latest building construction design and project management computer software.
One of the real-world realities that enters into this mix and that requires common-sense consideration, is that high-rise skyscrapers in New York City, for example, are built…in their entirety…without any tradespeople onsite ever having to differentiate or integrate calculus equations as part of their work. Massively complicated structures are built from the ground up with only the occasional tradesperson applying simple 3-4-5 trigonometry to check the accuracy of the square-ness of their interior wall layout. The most complicated mathematical computations performed onsite are probably done by the surveying crew. A large gulf exists therefore between the technical design that occurs in an office environment, and the practical assembly of building components that takes place on the actual building site. The information that connects the design to the construction is the design calculations, translated into project documents usable by the building tradespeople working onsite, known as the plans and specifications.
The idea that the general contractor’s onsite construction supervision staff would perform complex engineering calculations that displaced the engineering design performed by the project engineers and architect of record, would be a dangerous development. The last thing the general contractor and subcontractors on a new building construction project want to do is to assume part of the liability for the building’s design. There has to be a clear separation between design and construction. Even in the design-build contractual arrangement, we want qualified licensed designers performing the actual design work, with valuable practical input from construction experts. We do not want half-qualified and partially trained people designing the structural elements or the mechanical systems for even the simplest buildings, no matter how sophisticated the building design computer software is.
How then does this relate to the question of the proper balance between engineering and project management in construction management college programs, especially with the proliferation of highly developed design software systems today? Where should responsible educators draw the line in crafting curriculums that match the needs of employers and at the same time provide the foundation for professional growth after graduates enter the workforce?