Ferris State a leader in construction management

February 14, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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A four-year degree in cement technology?

That’s included in Michigan House Bill 4496, a proposal to permit community colleges to grant baccalaureate degrees in a few specific fields. The one getting the most attention is nursing, but the other fields are maritime technology, energy production technology, culinary arts — and “cement technology.”

Whoever drafted that legislation was “probably thinking of concrete, instead of cement,” because cement “is just a component of concrete,” said Bob Eastley, coordinator of the construction degree programs at Ferris State University in Big Rapids.

The Portland Cement Association website is in full agreement with Eastley. It says concrete is basically a mixture of aggregates and paste — “paste” being the cement. Concrete is the finished product used in highways, buildings, concrete blocks, etc. Technically, there is no such thing as a cement sidewalk or cement mixer: The proper terms are concrete sidewalk and concrete mixer, according to the PCA.

FSU does not offer a “concrete technology program,” said Eastley — but it does offer two-year associate degrees in applied science in civil engineering technology and in building construction technology. Then there is the FSU four-year, nationally accredited bachelor of science degree in construction management.

All three of those degrees are within the School of Built Environment, which usually has about 270 students enrolled and is part of the larger College of Engineering Technology, which includes about 2,000 students.

The FSU construction management degree is one of only three accredited in Michigan, and one of only 50 or so in the U.S. The two other Michigan universities offering a four-year construction management degree are MSU and Eastern Michigan.

Eastley describes FSU construction management graduates as “sort of high-end. They are the people who are out working as project managers on a construction site. They are employed by a general contractor.”

“We are sending students to all the big contractors, nationally,” he said, adding that the construction management advisory committee resembles a “who’s who” of executives in the construction industry.

Eastley said that some years as many as 75 construction management graduates go to Whiting-Turner, a major East Coast company based in Baltimore. Others go to Turner Construction, an international firm based in New York City. Others have landed at Kiewit in Omaha, plus Michigan firms including Rockford Construction, Granger, Christman, Klett and more. Some of these, such as Whiting-Turner and Granger, have made sizable contributions to FSU and have their names on the School of Built Environment facilities.

FSU grads usually start a construction career at some level of field engineering, said Eastley, and over a period of years, work their way up to the project manager position: the person “running the show, making sure everything is being done, managing subcontractors — everything that has to happen.”

The Great Recession had a major impact on construction in Michigan, which experienced numerous factory closings starting more than 10 years ago, throwing a glut of vacant properties on the market.

Eastley said FSU continued to place well over 90 percent of its annual construction management graduates in jobs “until the big dump.” Then that percentage dropped to 75 percent or less.

FSU was still of interest to employers, “but a large number of our students had to go out of state to find employment,” he said.

Decades ago, before Ferris became a university, its construction instruction was more like a training center that offered certificates that eventually grew into two-year programs. With the advancement to university status in 1987, the institution’s primary focus became the four-year degree, but Eastley said there is still a place for a two-year degree, “and we decided to maintain it.”

That’s because some students come to the School of Built Environment from career tech centers and are not sure they want to invest the time and money in a four-year degree, he said, so the two-year programs can work as a steppingstone, allowing them to try the college environment before making a four-year commitment.

Eastley said the only concrete technology program in Michigan higher education that he is aware of is at Alpena Community College, which is a two-year program. ACC, in fact, is home to the World Center for Concrete Technology, funded by one of the school’s major benefactors: Besser Co. in Alpena. Besser has been in business for more than 100 years and is a global equipment supplier to the concrete block industry and other manufacturers of concrete products. Limestone quarries along the Lake Huron shore provide the raw material for making cement, which is why Besser started there.

The Associate in Applied Science degree in concrete technology is “the only one of its kind in the United States,” according to the ACC website. It has been offered for more than 40 years and was one of the original Portland Cement Association educational programs.

Eastley said the ACC concrete degree is a fairly narrow focus but is appropriate and needed, with those individuals going to work for concrete production companies. He said he believes a two-year program is sufficient.

The civil engineering technology program at Ferris, while not an actual engineering degree, emphasizes instruction in soil and material testing, highway technology, engineering, design and the construction process, and students who earn it are in demand as material testers for contractors or state highway departments.

The FSU catalog states that the civil engineering technician “needs a background in mathematics and physical science plus a thorough knowledge of construction materials, methods and equipment.” The program also includes general education courses, as well as related courses in soil and materials testing, surveying, estimating, plans and specifications, basic computer skills, hydrology, highway design and computer-aided design. An individual who earns either of FSU’s two-year degrees from the School of Built Environment can, if desired, continue on in the four-year construction management program.

One FSU grad is now working for a contractor who is building commercial wind farms in Michigan, according to Eastley. Wind farms require an enormous amount of concrete and reinforced steel for the foundation and base of each wind turbine tower. Eastley said the Stoney Corners project near McBain, southeast of Cadillac, entailed the construction of a concrete plant on the site, plus a fleet of heavy trucks to deliver the fresh concrete to each turbine site.

Steve Thoms of Heritage Wind Energy in Traverse City, which built and manages the Stoney Corners Wind Farm Project, said 29 turbines are now on line there. This spring, Heritage is adding to a wind farm it is building on the Garden Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula.

“To construct one turbine foundation base takes 470 to 500 yards of concrete — about 45 to 50 cement-truck loads,” said Thoms.

Actually, he means concrete truck.

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