20-Year Construction Coordinator Continues to Learn with Online Degree

October 10, 2023  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

The Milner family supports James and his educational endeavors: from left, Angie, James, Nathan, Noah and Kayla.

“Every class, used every day. All the time.”

That was James Milner’s answer to “how will you use what you have learned” in his final presentation for his master’s degree in construction management delivered online by the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas. Milner has worked as a construction coordinator for Facilities Management at the U of A for 20 years. This milestone work anniversary coincides with his final day in his final class of the degree program.

“The coursework is really aligned with what my current job is,” he said about the Master of Science in Construction Management. “My team at Facilities Management acts as the owners’ representative for capital projects. We help manage construction projects from the design phase through construction and finally as the early point of contact during the warranty period. We call it the ‘cradle to grave’ service. My team and I are with a project from start to finish.

“There is not an aspect that doesn’t make me smarter or help me know more about what’s going on,” Milner said about the degree program.

For example, he admits to not being an estimator, the person assigned to compile a list of materials to determine the estimated costs of a construction project.

“But, I need to understand how that works,” Milner said. “I need to know about the economics of the labor force and the contracting industry and laws surrounding the construction process. There are a lot of aspects of construction contracting and requirements that don’t exist in other kinds of contract law.”

On Milner’s first day managing capital construction at the U of A in 2003, his boss assigned him 16 construction projects on campus. He felt overwhelmed then, only five years into the field of construction management with a bachelor’s degree from John Brown University. Now, he said, he longs for those days as his team (which has six people when at full capacity) typically handles more than 200 projects at a time ranging from $20,000 in minor sidewalk repairs, for example, to the $121 million Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research going up at Dickson Street and Duncan Avenue in Fayetteville.

“It has never slowed down,” Milner said. “I have never spent one day bored at the University. I love it. I like being active, being challenged every day. Working here at the U of A, where else in the world can you work on a heavy highway project in the morning, a high-rise residential project before lunch, a commercial development such as a commercial food-service fit-out in the afternoon, and then look in on progress for the new laboratory building we are working on before the day ends?

“The diversity of work here is incredible,” he continued. “My specialty has become doing a lot of complicated things, at the same time. The challenge is always there, and I get to inspire incredibly talented people to do the kind of work that the campus needs. I like solving problems, and this job gives me lots of interesting, rewarding challenges to solve. Our mission is to support the academic mission of the university in everything we do.”


Sibling Rivalry

Milner plans to walk at commencement in December. He walked last December, too, after finishing the Master of Science in Operations Management, which is also offered online by the U of A College of Engineering.

Milner said his sister, Patty Milner, the assistant vice provost for student outreach and innovation at Global Campus, is in part responsible for him being enrolled in two online master’s degrees at once. She knew he wanted to teach on the college level someday and would need an advanced degree to qualify for those positions, so she encouraged him to enroll in an online degree. At the time, the Operations Management degree was available, but the Construction Management degree was not. She threw down the gauntlet and challenged him to enroll. They knew the MSOM wasn’t the degree he really wanted, but it would give him the credentials he sought to teach. In addition, the employee benefit of discounted tuition made it a much easier choice to pursue.

Then, Sam and Janet Alley of Little Rock contributed $2 million to the U of A, and the master’s degree in construction management was created. The 30-hour, interdisciplinary program includes detailed lessons and assignments in scheduling, finance, productivity, efficiency, safety, contracts and risk management, according to the website. The program involves the College of Engineering, the Sam M. Walton College of Business, the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and the School of Law.

“That was exactly the program I had been hoping for, the one I really wanted,” Milner said. “I was faced with a decision as I was completing my first-degree completion, and I decided to go for a double. My goal has always been to learn more and be as prepared as possible for new challenges. It’s always important to move your education along, improve your skillset.”


Role Model

Milner has been to Bud Walton Arena in the course of his work many times over the years, and he initially debated whether to walk last year at commencement, which was held in Bud Walton. Ultimately, he decided it was important for his family and others around him that he celebrate the accomplishment. He described the experience of walking across the stage and shaking new Chancellor Charles Robinson’s hand as a bit surreal.

He didn’t set out on this path necessarily to serve as a role model for his children when he enrolled, Milner said, but he believes modeling the habits and behavior of an adult learner is a good influence for them.

“If you come to my house on the right night of the week, you can see three boys spread around the house, madly typing on laptops to get things done,” he said of himself and his two sons. “Or, a lot of times, I’m waiting for them to go to bed and the house is quiet again and I can focus on what I’m doing.”

Milner and his wife also have an adult daughter who is employed at the U of A in the Office of International Students and Scholars as an international student advisor.

The boys find it harder to complain about their own assignments when their father is doing as much homework or more in the next room, he said. He acknowledges his motivation is different from theirs.

“I’m working to continue to improve, even though it’s not the same demand on me,” Milner said. “I don’t have to do it specifically for my job as a requirement. I do it because it makes me smarter, better and more capable. It has put me in a position to bring some important lessons like how important it is to keep up with your workload and that you can’t see the achievement if you don’t finish the course, submit the assignment, and get the credit. Those conversations are made a lot easier by the fact I’m sitting 15 feet away from them trying to finish my homework, too. I have to choose to be bold and talk to or write in to the teacher when I don’t understand concepts. These are the kinds of things you have to learn to do to be successful in school and later in life as well. You have to show them you’ve made the initial effort and when you feel stuck, ask for feedback. That’s the way you will likely need to do things the rest of your life. You are training for the way things will be in the next round.”


Vital Components

An online degree program provides the accessibility and flexibility a working professional needs to earn an advanced degree, Milner said, but such a degree program also needs to provide a sense of community for the student. That means one of the best features of an online degree will be that it better serves a construction manager who needs to travel regularly for work. Even though his work is primarily focused in Fayetteville, he says he’s aware that an in-person degree was not feasible for his colleagues in the construction industry.

“You need a program that is flexible enough to do on your off time while in the field, anywhere in the country (or abroad) you might be deployed,” Milner said. “If most construction managers in the field were required to show up every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 o’clock on a geographically locked location, and be ready for that condition to change schedules from semester to semester for the next 18 months, they are not even going to have a conversation about it. It’s just not feasible in a busy construction firm to be able to commit to that rigid a schedule, in a single location for that long, even if the desire is there.”

However, doing an online degree also means you may feel off by yourself in the process and it’s easy to feel isolated.

“It can sometimes feel too hard, and you’d rather watch football, or you feel too tired from a 12-hour shift and that you’re falling behind,” he said. “You have to find ways to keep a sense of community and connection to what you’re going to do. You need family support, but you also sometimes need people who are in it with you.”

He has a friend who took the program at the same time, and they were able to support and reassure each other. That relationship was a great help in some of the tougher times.

“When you think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so much,’ how do I even get back to it? You start looking at your kids, look at opportunities you’ve been offered, and you go, ‘OK, it’s time to dig a little deeper.’ You may have to work on it between 10 and midnight several days a week, but you do what you have to do and stay inspired by the fact that your family is behind you, and you are doing great things even you were not aware you could do just a short while ago. You’re doing this for them.”

Milner also has to temper his expectations sometimes, he said, and remind himself that, while he wants to make all As, he’s taking classes because he doesn’t know everything about the construction industry and processes, and he is working to learn more. He remarked that “we generally learn more when things don’t go perfectly than when they do.”

One professor fostered a sense of community by scheduling non-mandatory online sessions to review highlights of the week’s homework, Milner said. And, if someone couldn’t attend at the time, they could watch the recording. Those sessions also helped the students get to know each other and offer support, he said.

Some classes were less interactive, but others included requirements for discussion board posting that encouraged engagement and instructors generally were open to students asking for help.

“The holy grail for instructors is to find ways for students to stay connected,” he said. “Professors are limited sometimes because they have a lot of students, and they are presenting the problems for people to apply tools and grow to understand better. Efforts to keep students talking and engaged with one another and the professor worked well for me.”

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at heidiw@uark.edu or 479-575-7239.

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