As commercial real estate evolves and becomes increasingly sophisticated, so too do the universities charged with preparing the next generation of brokers, developers, asset managers and investment bankers. Today's industry bears little resemblance to the real estate world of just 30 years ago, when brokers were jacks-of-all-trades and lease documents were three pages long.

Nowhere is the transformation of the industry more apparent than in the financial arena. Real estate is now firmly entrenched as a preferred asset class, and has entered the public markets through real estate investment trusts and securitized mortgage products. Changes to the tax code have spawned new lines of business, such as tenant-in-common groups and 1031 exchange investment firms.

All of this is contributing to fervent demand for real estate professionals with financial expertise, says Anthony LoPinto, CEO of New York-based Equinox Partners, a national recruiting firm focused solely on the commercial real estate industry.

“Companies are requiring asset managers and portfolio managers,” he says. “They're also looking for senior financial officers, such as CFOs and chief accounting officers. Those requirements are at an extraordinary level.” LoPinto says the overall commercial real estate job market is strong compared with previous years.

Besides finance-related posts, there's a need for development expertise across all sectors — office, industrial, retail and hospitality. “They're all busy and all hiring, both public REITs and private companies,” LoPinto says. “This is true for developers who can originate business as well as those who manage the development process. We've seen a lot of activity in the Southwest and Southeast, as you would expect, but it's not limited to those areas. It's pretty much a national trend.”

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor, the outlook for development and construction jobs is excellent through 2014, as opportunities outnumber the qualified candidates. The situation is expected to continue even as college construction management programs expand to meet high demand, the report stated. Demand for appraisers and asset managers is expected to grow faster than average, due to increased real estate activity, especially on the West and East coasts and in major cities. Demand for architects will be strong, but competition will be fierce for entry-level positions.

Transwestern Commercial Services is among those on the prowl for new personnel, says Jim Ledbetter, regional president in the firm's Atlanta office. “Certainly investment sales is the hottest segment of the real estate business today, but the economy is marching along at a positive pace,” he says. “Our tenant rep business is expanding and our leasing and management business is growing, too.”

Ledbetter says there's no shortage of candidates or jobs. “The shortage, if there is one, is of talented candidates.”

Prepped for success

The job of preparing those candidates falls to the country's colleges and universities. At least 15 schools now have real estate graduate programs; some 30 others have MBA programs that offer a real estate emphasis. Educators say they expect the numbers to continue to grow.

As the real estate industry broadens and deepens, universities are responding by picking a focus and homing in on it. Finance is a key emphasis at New York University, says Ken Patton, associate dean, director and Silverstein chair at the school's Real Estate Institute.

“Most real estate programs are MBA programs with a real estate concentration,” he says. “We are 100% real estate. Our program includes many MBA-type subjects, but when we look at corporate finance, for example, we look at it from the perspective of a real estate corporation, or a real estate investment trust.”

With 750 students, NYU has one of the largest graduate real estate programs in the country. About 130 of the students are pursuing master's degrees in construction, a program NYU launched three years ago. The focus isn't on how to build buildings, but on how to run a company that constructs buildings.

Companies are hungering for graduate students with in-depth real estate knowledge, Patton says. This point was driven home last month at the school's annual career night. In 2005, 20 to 30 companies participated in the recruiting event — way up from previous years. This year, the number skyrocketed to 110. “It was an astounding evening; a transforming moment,” Patton says. “Half of the 110 companies didn't even exist 10 years ago.”

Changes in the industry have forced what Patton calls the “corporatization” of real estate companies. “They now have human resources departments, they care about affirmative action and value education,” he says. “It's not just about having the right connections anymore. Real estate has gone from who you know to what you know.”

Getting progressive

Hospitality, one of the hottest sectors in real estate, is the focus at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. An Internet-based program the school introduced in 2002 has been wildly successful, with more than 10,000 courses sold. It offers two master's certificates, in hospitality management and food service management. Students have logged on from 110 different countries, including Canada, Mexico and China.

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor focuses on emerging development trends as part of a master's certificate program launched last fall. It's headed by Chris Leinberger, visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution and founding partner of Arcadia Land Co. in Wayne, Penn. “Think of it as a real estate minor that focuses on progressive real estate,” explains Leinberger. “On the policy side, that includes smart growth and regionalism. On the product side, it includes downtown revitalization, new urbanism and transit-oriented projects.”

About 50 students are participating in the initiative, a collaboration between U-M's business school, law school and school of architecture. Coursework covers design, finance, legal and zoning issues. It is slated to become a full-fledged master's program; an executive education component also is in the works.

U-M may be the first, but other schools, such as the University of Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are developing progressive real estate programs, too, Leinberger says. “It's clearly an emerging specialty,” he says. “There is significant pent-up demand. Research is consistent in finding that 33% to 50% of us want space that has walkable urbanity as its base.”

As developers respond to that demand, Leinberger says he expects strong interest in U-M graduates with progressive real estate expertise. “The market is definitely headed in this direction.”

As they begin to act more like traditional corporations, a growing number of real estate companies are developing formal recruiting programs. But the University of Southern California's Lusk Center for Real Estate still emphasizes networking and making business connections that can lead to job opportunities. Last year, most of its 73 real estate master's grads took jobs with development companies (44%) and finance groups (16%). Starting average salaries ranged from $72,500 to $120,000, with annual bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $45,000.

Like USC, the University of Wisconsin relies heavily on former grads for helping students segue into the work world. “We have incredibly passionate alumni, 1,600 people in real estate in every major and minor submarket in the United States,” says Mike Mihelbergel, executive director of the school's Center for Real Estate.

“They're extremely active with the students, coaching, guiding, giving guest lectures and sponsoring them on trips.” The University of Wisconsin also has an 80-member alumni board that meets with students twice a year.

The school, which has a long, rich history in real estate, launched a formal master's in real estate program in the fall of 2004. The first graduating class of 14 students will pick up their degrees in May. Another 16 students are in their first year.

The program places a heavy emphasis on finance and international real estate, and gives students an upclose global view with annual trips to Europe and Asia. In March, second-year students, four alumni and two professors spent two weeks in China, where they met with developers and investors and toured the construction site where one of the world's tallest buildings is being built.

“It's essential to get students out of the classroom. It's even better to get them in an international setting,” Mihelbergel says. “They need an understanding of the global economy. You can move money around the world faster today than you can cash a check in your hometown.”

The greatest career opportunities for this year's crop of grads are in international real estate investment, according to Mihelbergel, especially if a candidate can work it both ways, helping U.S. investors making global buys and foreign investors place money in America.

Millennial mindset

One challenge for both educators and employers is a sense of entitlement many twentysomethings feel. “Some students think they can just walk into a graduate program and expect the school to get them a job,” Mihelbergel says. “We teach our students how to manage their own careers, how to be self-sufficient, how to network, and we give them many opportunities to do just that.”

After spending all of that time in school, many MBA grads have high expectations and don't want to have to start out at the bottom, says John Gates, division president at The Staubach Co. But on the tenant rep side of the business, that's the way it works. Brokers typically pound the pavement for a year or two before landing their first significant deal. “At the end of the day,”Gates says, “you have to do it on your own in this industry.”

Christine Perez is a Dallas-based writer.