Careers In Real Estate: How To Uncover Job Opportunities In A Dynamic Industry

From affordable housing development to the Trump Towers, the dynamic yet low profile real estate industry represents so much more than brokerage, writes James Carberry, co-author of The Inside Track to Careers in Real Estate, in this Op-Ed.

Read Time: 7 minutes

July 5, 2006, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Carberry

James Carberry

The real estate industry is a powerful force in determining where we live, work, shop, and play, in shaping the fabric of our cities and suburbs, and in influencing the qualify of our lives. So it is essential that the industry attract smart, talented people who will make decisions that not only serve the interests of their companies, but also the larger public interest. Real estate needs good people, and good people can find interesting, challenging, and rewarding careers in real estate, if only they knew of all the opportunities it has to offer.

But they may not know. The end product of real estate -- our built environment -- makes the industry one of the most visible on the planet, yet as a career choice, it is less visible than business, law, medicine, education, or other professions. Through personal experience and pop culture, most people have a basic familiarity with the careers of doctors, teachers, or lawyers, yet the world of real estate remains largely a mystery to many.

Yet there's much more to real estate than brokering home deals, converting apartments to condos, or attending conferences with themes such as "How to Make Millions in Real Estate Without Even Trying!" Stan Ross, chairman of the board of the University of Southern California (USC) Lusk Center for Real Estate, and I learned of people's misperceptions about real estate while collaborating on the book, The Inside Track to Careers in Real Estate, which was recently published by the Urban Land Institute. We teamed with USC students to interview about 180 people, from industry leaders to young professionals to students. We found that people primarily think of real estate in terms of brokerage, and many of the books published on real estate careers focus on the sales side. Even many people working in real estate do not fully understand the breadth and depth of this vibrant industry.

What Does A Career In Real Estate Have To Offer?

For the purposes of our book, we divided the industry into three core sectors: development, investment, and services. This may come as a shock to the real estate outsider, but there is an incredibly wide variety of career choices within each of these sectors. For example, you can work for a large or small developer or homebuilder, for a public or private company, a company that invests globally or in a niche market like California or a product line like retail, or in services like architecture, consulting, construction contracting, or real estate law. You can specialize in finance, marketing, investment, project management, asset management, property acquisitions, sales and leasing and many other areas. You can work for a company or start your own business. And if you're exceptionally well qualified with language skills, you may find work outside the U.S. As you can see, the list goes on.

When we asked people why they went into real estate, they offered many reasons, from a chance to make money to an opportunity to contribute to the community, such as working for a nonprofit organization that builds low-income housing. But the number one reason? They have a passion for developing, owning, and managing a physical asset, whether a single apartment building or a global portfolio of properties. Real estate -- controlling real property -- excites them. Luckily, employers look for that passion about buildings. In our book, Raymond C. Mikulich, a managing director of Lehman Brothers, and co-head of Lehman Brothers Real Estate Private Equity Group, said of interviewing job candidates: "I look for one very simple answer from them. 'I like the tangibility. I like looking at it.' If they don't tell me that, if that answer just doesn't roll off their lips, then they don't love the business and chances are they're not going to have a long-term career in real estate."

How To Break Into The Real Estate Game

People come into real estate from many directions. Some grew up in real estate families. Others earned graduate degrees in real estate. Some made career changes into real estate. Larry Webb, the CEO of John Laing Homes, one of the largest private homebuilders in the U.S., started as a high school teacher.

When we talked to hiring managers, human resources directors, and executive recruiters about why they hire or recommend prospective employees, they said they look at an applicant's education and experience, as well as certain skill sets. Employers look to a growing number of schools -- including USC, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley, Wisconsin, and the University of Pennsylvania - that offer graduate programs in real estate, and some, such as New York's Baruch College, that offer undergraduate degrees. Many people have also gone into real estate with undergraduate degrees in liberal arts, or graduate degrees in business, accounting, law, or other disciplines.

The point is that prospective employers are primarily interested in a graduate's experience, however limited. James Klingbeil, CEO of the Klingbeil Company, a developer, owner and manager, told us that there are too few "mules" in real estate today. "By that I mean people who have actually built a house, developed land, or fixed up an old apartment building," he explained. His advice to those thinking of a career in real estate is to get some hands-on experience in construction. Employers also seek graduates who have worked as interns for appraisers, brokers, property managers, or other real estate companies, or for businesses generally. And they value graduates with experience in the public sector. For example, Renata Simril, currently vice president for development with Forest City Enterprises, a publicly traded, diversified real estate company, previously was deputy mayor for housing and economic development for the city of Los Angeles.

Important skill sets needed to break into the industry include analytical ability, communication, leadership, learning, and collaboration abilities. These skills are highly transferable, which is one reason why people have been able to move into real estate from other professions. In addition to these core skills, a solid grounding in finance is essential. Employers also look for innate qualities such as resourcefulness, integrity, flexibility, and focus. But by far, the most important quality is enthusiasm -- a demonstrated passion for real estate, and for the job in question. Employers also consider a prospect's fit into their organizational culture that comprises their assumptions, values, and beliefs. Finally, candidates are evaluated based on skills specific to the job. For example, the job may require the ability to write well in drafting letters, reports, and memorandums, though not at the level of a professional journalist.

How To Find The Right Job

Based on our interviews with successful professionals, most graduates began the job search early. While still in school, they networked extensively, which is particularly important in an industry like real estate with relatively few people. They learned about the industry through classes, talking to industry professionals, attending meetings of professional organizations, and online research. Some learned of specific job openings on the Internet, but most decided on who they wanted to work for and pursued that prospective employer aggressively. Heidi Brandl, a vice president in the deal origination group IHP Capital Partners, of Irvine, California, one of the largest U.S. investment firms dedicated primarily to providing equity financing for residential development, and a graduate of USC's Master of Real Estate Development program, initially got an internship with IHP through this approach, and was hired four months later by the company.

Many people starting out in real estate are passionate about becoming entrepreneurs; however, entrepreneurship is difficult, and not for everyone. One graduate succeeded in starting a company converting apartments to condominiums while another ran into difficulties obtaining financing and temporarily put dreams of starting a business aside to work for an established company.

In working on the book, I wondered how many talented people might be out there who could do very well in real estate if only they knew of the opportunities. Considering the various skills useful in real estate and the vast number of ways to become involved and successful in the field, the talent pool is surely extensive. However, it seems that a serious lack of career information about the field has inadvertently closed the doors to many people who never even realized they might want to walk through.

People in the industry can do something about this. Go to high schools, community colleges, and other schools and talk to students about careers generally, and real estate especially. Participate in career days sponsored by local high schools or colleges, or host a career day at your company. Sponsor or participate in career events such as Urban Plan, the Urban Land Institute's classroom exercise for high school students that simulates a development project. Offer to mentor students or provide internships. Provide scholarships to students. While this might seem like charity, it's really a matter of self interest. Competition for talent will increase in coming years, and employers need to start now to find, nurture, train, and prepare the next generation of leaders for their companies, and the industry. Considering the power of real estate companies to shape our cities and communities, we all have an interest in companies recruiting the very best people.

In a 30-year professional career, award-winning journalist James Carberry has been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, an international newsletter writer and editor, and a corporate director of marketing communications.

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