Rachael Weinberg has her heart set on a career in retail real estate, having started her term in the management trainee program at Developers Diversified Realty Corp. a Beachwood, Ohio-based REIT with a 117-million-square-foot portfolio. There, the 23-year-old completed six-month rotations in the leasing and acquisitions/dispositions departments and is about to start in the development office. Her mind is made up though — she wants to be on the transaction side.

A 2006 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Bachelor's degree in real estate and urban land economics, Weinberg cites a class in REIT valuation as being one of the most useful on the job. That course detailed how real estate transactions impact stock value. The University of Wisconsin curriculum also offered coursework that included Excel and Argus real estate appraisal programs. Weinberg was drawn to the field of real estate after taking a course in the “Real Estate Process,” which encompassed residential, retail and mixed-use properties. She initially started off as a finance major.

“I would still get to do financial analysis,” Weinberg says of retail real estate. “There is a lot more opportunity to [interact] with other people and be creative.”

Despite the demand for trained real estate professionals and an increase in the numbers of real estate departments at colleges and universities across the United States, finding those with a curriculum tailored to shopping center management and development can be elusive.

As recently as 2002, when Developers Diversified launched its recruitment program, finding real estate majors was not a consideration since few institutions of higher learning had curriculums concentrated in real estate. But NAREIT, ULI and ICSC all get the word out, according to Nan Zieleniec, senior vice president of human resources at Developers Diversified.

“Two, three years ago, nobody even knew what a REIT was,” says Zieleniec.

Although only 98 of the 2,474 four-year colleges and universities in the United States have real estate departments, and even fewer offer undergraduate degrees in real estate. Some of the notable exceptions are Arizona State University, the University of Southern California and Temple University. Still, those schools aren't likely to have coursework focusing specifically on retail real estate.

In fact, the number of four-year universities in the United States that offer classes in retail real estate is zero, says David C. Ling, director of the Nathan S. Collier Master of Science in Real Estate program at the University of Florida.

Officials at Developers Diversified, who recruit about 10 interns annually, usually from Colgate University, University of Denver and University of Wisconsin-Madison, have to explain to students at liberal arts colleges that real estate is not just selling houses. Not surprisingly, Zieleniec says graduates of real estate programs are much easier to train than business majors and liberal arts students.

“We find them to be well-rounded in real estate, exposed to all sectors… [their] learning curve is much shorter because of their exposure to the curriculum,” says Zieleniec.

For 82 years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has offered a real estate program. However, just 150 of the 1,200 students in the University's business school were studying real estate when Weinberg was there. “It was a much, much smaller program than finance or marketing,” she says.

The chairs at the real estate departments at some of the country's most prestigious universities, including Johns Hopkins University and Cornell University, want to see that change. Most seek to develop a closer relationship with ICSC to provide students with more networking and internship opportunities and all say they would like to have leaders from the industry lecture on campuses to explain the many facets of a career in real estate. Meanwhile, department heads at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins and Columbia University are working to create an association, the Society of Accredited Real Estate Programs, that would monitor and rank real estate programs at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

The society would create a comprehensive ranking of real estate departments across the country to help industry executives identify schools from which they can find qualified candidates. For now, they can only review the ranking of the business school when deciding where to recruit workers, says Michael Anikeeff, professor and chair of the Edward St. John Department of Real Estate at Johns Hopkins. That overlooks programs at MIT and Columbia University, which are administered through other academic institutions.

“About 80 percent of the real estate programs in the United States are accredited through the American Association of the Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), but in those programs you often get three courses in real estate and everything else is business,” Anikeeff says. “Meanwhile, programs like ours, where it's all real estate all the time, don't get ranked.”

It's also a problem for retail real estate executives, who are at a loss about which schools to turn to when recruiting young talent. In the absence of a comprehensive ranking for real estate programs, Santa Monica, Calif.-based REIT Macerich Co. has to rely on its executives' personal experiences to decide which schools to target.

“We want to know what these schools teach, how they are set up and how they approach our business,” says John Genovese, senior vice president of development with Macerich. “But right now, we are using our collective knowledge of what people know about schools they've gone to themselves as our basis.”

Based on industry recommendations, Macerich has identified 10 preliminary target schools, including the University of Southern California, but Genovese estimates that it will be another four or five months before all the research is completed.

Priming the pipeline

If undergraduate students want to study the ins and outs of shopping center management or development, for the time being, they have very few options.

That's a problem that confronted 24-year-old Kris Wogtecki when he was considering where to apply for his undergraduate degree. Wogtecki knew he wanted to study real estate, but found few programs that offered a Bachelor's degree in the field. He ended up enrolling in the urban studies program at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, from which he graduated in 2005. “I knew that was the closest thing I could get to in real estate,” he says. Wogtecki now works in the asset management department of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Inland Western Retail Real Estate Trust.

For professionals already working in the industry, the ICSC offers a number of courses through its executive learning series, the John T. Riordan International School for Professional Development and the University of Shopping Centers.

The Institute of Real Estate Management also offers a two-day course that focuses on the marketing and leasing of shopping centers, but according to Jordan Pester, IREM career services advisor, 99 percent of the 100 students who take the course annually are older professionals.

The organization does try to attract younger people to a career in property management through its “Get Ready, Get Real” program, but doesn't directly market IREM courses to students. Instead, it offers a list of colleges (by state) with real estate programs, provides scholarships and job descriptions, as well as data on salaries. “I think the [kids] start taking our classes once they are actually in the field,” Pester says, adding that IREM is working on providing internships for college students through its Web site, IREMjobs.org.

With the country's demographics changing dramatically, however, training a new generation of shopping center developers and managers is critical. Last year, the first of the 78.2 million Baby Boomers began retiring. Over the next decade, 72.7 million members of Generation Y, born between 1978 and 1994, will begin to take their place as the prominent force in the business world. While many are still in their college years, they are a resource for talent in the retail real estate industry; but, only if someone gets the word out to them that it is an option.

Getting young people involved in management and development would energize the industry, says Anikeeff. He explains that the younger people are the more likely they are to take risks, which is an essential element of a successful real estate company.

“If you are 35 when you come out of the graduate program and you get into a development position, often you have a mortgage and a family, so being creative is risky for you,” Anikeeff says. “But if you are 23, if you try it and it works, fantastic; if not, you can still go into another aspect of the industry and be successful. These people can be trained and molded.”

REITs, aware of an impending dearth in talent, have established their own training programs or formed partnerships with colleges and universities to recruit student interns. And, last year, the advisory board for the real estate department at Johns Hopkins University, made up of developers in the Washington/Baltimore corridor, asked the school to adapt its Master's in Real Estate program for recent college graduates. Previously, the program targeted seasoned professionals with about 10 years of related work experience for the Master's degree.

The accelerated program, which recently completed its first year, requires full-time students to take 13 classes within a nine-month period, including courses on market and feasibility analysis, urban land economics and contemporary topics in real estate. Upon completion of the coursework, students are required to complete a three-month internship with a real estate firm before receiving their degree. To address current market demand, the program is geared toward mixed-use; however the curriculum encompasses all market segments.

“About a third of the class does shopping centers or mixed-use properties as their final project, but every class will have something on retail in it,” Anikeeff says.

The faculty of Johns Hopkins works on behalf of the students to secure internships at companies where they receive hands-on experience in development and are not used as gofers. The internships, Anikeeff estimates, will result in full-time positions for approximately half of the 45 students.

Cornell has a two-year graduate program in real estate. The comprehensive program offers 19 core courses, including classes in managerial finance, GIS applications in real estate, marketing and management, and communication in real estate, as well as several specialized electives, where students work directly with faculty members on their preferred market niche.

Also, each semester Cornell offers a Real Estate Industry Seminar. It features lectures by noted figures from the real estate industry. During the final semester, all students are required to complete a project workshop course. They are divided into teams, sent into the field and asked to complete a feasibility study on a new development.

Although the average age of students in the Cornell program is 30, its director, David Funk, says faculty is trying to reach out to newly minted graduates, including those who don't have a business background. “One of the values of the two-year program is that we have the ability to encourage students not to specialize in the first fall, so they can really explore their options,” says Funk.

At American University, the Kogod School of Business offers both a Bachelor's and a Master's in real estate. Capitalizing on its urban location in Washington, D.C., this program has allowed students to get real-life experience in retail property management. For example, a few years ago, the school's Department of Finance and Real Estate partnered with General Growth Properties to devise ways to improve traffic at the nearby Shops at Georgetown Park center.

As part of their project, students frequented the 300,000-square-foot mall in one of the city's premier retail districts to interview passersby on the center's visibility and assess ways to improve foot traffic. They also helped the local retail merchants create a Business Improvement District and assisted with the creation of a new bus route connecting Georgetown with the rest of the city. The American University program does not require an internship, but Peter Chinloy, realtor chair professor of the Department of Finance and Real Estate, encourages students to take advantage of them; especially those that offer an opportunity to work on the development side of a real estate company.