Building Success: Developing Construction Management Leaders

February 2, 2023

Gearhart Hall on the University of Arkansas campus, a VCC USA project, received a 2015 Excellence in Construction Award from ABC Arkansas.

Very few professions allow you to make an impact literally from the ground up. Construction managers are front and center at the beginning, middle and end of every project they work on. From working with architects, engineers, and construction specialists to delving into costs, supply management, budgets, scheduling, legal requirements, and safety codes to delivering a final product to the client — on time and on budget — their jobs are critical to every stage of any construction project.

Construction management is something that entrepreneur Sam Alley knows a thing or two about. In 1987, armed with his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Arkansas and some years of experience under his belt, he launched the construction services company VCC, where he serves as chairman.

Today, VCC has nine offices in six states and has taken on numerous successful construction projects of every kind, ranging from retail and office space to multifamily, hospitality, entertainment and industrial structures all around the country. Alley's professional journey and success have made him and VCC respected leaders in the construction industry.

"A master's degree shows a willingness to go beyond the basic knowledge of any industry and to advance into a leadership role."

Sam Alley, U of A graduate; chairman, construction services company VCC
Sam Alley
Sam Alley

The profession taught Alley many things, not the least of which is that construction management is a growth industry with many well-paying, rewarding jobs available. And that's not just his personal opinion.

U.S. News and World Report puts construction management at #29 on its 100 Best Jobs list. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 8% employment growth in the field (faster than average) through 2031 with 41,500 job openings for construction managers projected each year, on average, over the decade.

It's a career that is soaring — but sometimes, under the radar. Young professionals can be wary of jumping on the opportunities that construction management offers. That's partially the result of an outmoded perception that places the profession in a brawn-over-brain, blue-collar-only framework.

"There is a historic stigma that the industry is populated with tough guys, rough around the edges, but that is changing," says Alley. "We have intelligent, motivated people working at all the positions in construction management these days."

These same stereotypes have also contributed to a lack of gender diversity in the field. But that too is evolving. Today, the ranks of highly motivated construction management professionals are also being filled by women.

"We underestimate women in this business as far as their intelligence and capability. That stigma is changing too. When I started, there were only 2% of women in our workforce, now we are seeing 14% (according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek)."

In contrast to the rough-tough stereotype, brainpower is what's driving the construction management field, and with the right training, it offers opportunity for all. Today, a construction management degree is more important than it was in the past as the industry and clients look for both contextual expertise and advanced educational training to fill management roles. Alley sees that motivation to pursue advanced education as an extra indication of potential.

"A master's degree shows a willingness to go beyond the basic knowledge of any industry and to advance into a leadership role," he says.

But training for these construction leadership roles lagged behind demand in Alley's home state of Arkansas, and he wanted to do something about it.


Building a Construction Management Degree: An Entrepreneur's Approach

According to Alley, the initial spark for the program was the realization that there was a gap in available coursework in business and engineering at the U of A — they were separate silos that made it hard to take a more holistic approach to educating construction professionals. Yet the construction industry itself was demanding something else, a talent pool that was knowledgeable across disciplines.

Alley saw an educational deficit that needed to be corrected and an industry that was needing highly trained leaders. Having achieved success, "I wanted to give back to the university that helped me move into this career, and to contribute to the future of this industry that has given me so much.

So, in 2020, he decided to pay it forward. Alley and his wife Janet contributed $2 million to create the Online Sam and Janet Alley Master of Science in Construction Management Program Endowment at U of A.

The online master's in construction management is a first-of-its-kind program in Arkansas, filling a critical need for construction leadership and expertise throughout the state. The first cohort of students began the program in January of 2021 and it recently produced its first graduate.

The program gives construction managers who already have a bachelor's degree the necessary skills to lead a construction project start to finish, from the design phase through completion. The goal is to train students to advance in their current firms but also to instill in them the confidence to become entrepreneurs and start their own construction businesses or consultancies.

The 30-hour online master's program is truly interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of business, architecture, law and engineering. Seven required core courses include topics such as safety, productivity, modeling for design and construction and legal aspects of the construction industry. Additional electives are chosen from the Master of Science in Engineering program curriculum.

Alley believes that involving all the disciplines is essential to understanding the construction process and the risks involved. "We're a risk management company," he says.

Not surprisingly, when you are dealing with projects worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars — and the health and safety of many employees — understanding the big picture is essential. Risk and Financial Management in Construction is a required core course for the construction management master's. The class teaches students to understand the differences between financial management in construction versus financial management in other industries and how to quantitatively analyze financial decisions throughout a project.

The construction management program is taught by faculty from the U of A College of Engineering along with experienced industry professionals. The master's takes about two years to complete and is offered entirely online, for good reason: For adult students juggling work, life responsibilities and advanced education, online availability is a must.

"It's important we meet students where they are in life and their journey in this industry," says Alley.


The new Student Athlete Success Center, above, another project of VCC USA, will bring athletic service spaces that were scattered across campus together under one roof.

Changes in the Industry

The industry itself is on a journey, and equally important is the need to train construction managers who will move with and lead changes in an evolving field. Tasks that were once performed manually are now automated. Technology such as drones for surveying and 3D printing for building construction are helping make construction processes more efficient.

"I have seen these changes in so many ways since my beginnings as an engineer. Technology and the ability to accomplish bigger projects in less time have been great advancements," says Alley.

The changes go beyond technology and efficiency and extend to some of the biggest issues we face on a global scale. Today's construction leaders find themselves playing an increasingly larger role in leading sustainability in construction and helping solve environmental challenges.

LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building certification system in the world and is recognized as a symbol of sustainability leadership and achievement. Green building is important for the environment and the bottom line: It can affect a building's marketability, operation and performance.

"Leaders in the construction industry can no longer avoid the impacts the building sector has on the natural environment," asserts Alley. "We have LEED-accredited professionals all around our company who approach projects with environmental considerations in mind that will increase the value of the product for our owners and reduce the impact on the environment at the same time."

Alley's company, VCC, has been building to green specifications since the guidelines were first developed. VCC has completed green projects around the country including the federal General Services Administration office complex in Salt Lake City, Utah, where careful asbestos abatement and meeting all green-building requirements earned the project LEED Certified Gold, one of the highest levels of certification.

The U of A program curriculum reflects the need for leadership in this important area; Sustainability in Construction Management is one of the required core classes for all students in the online master's program. The class examines traditional concepts of construction through the lens of the three pillars of sustainability: economics, environmental, and social.


What it Takes: Construction Management Leadership

As a leader in the industry, Alley is well-versed in the importance of management excellence. But what does a leadership role in the construction industry look like? What personal qualities does someone need to succeed in this field?

"Every day is different," says Alley. And, like most professions, both challenges and rewards can be present on any given day. Construction managers need the skill to step up and find solutions or seize opportunities.

"A leader in this field will be able to navigate those challenges. Maturity, dedication and a sense of humor all will help success in this business," says Alley.

Like most management jobs, construction management calls for a healthy combination of both hard and soft skills in the professional toolkit.

"Hard skills involve knowing the business aspects such as schedules, financing and trade partner management," says Alley. "Soft skills involve reading the owners on the other side. Managing communication among stakeholders is key."

As Alley knows from his own experience, success is up to the individual.  He says advancement is available in a challenging, rewarding industry that creates both buildings and relationships. The rewards are there for those who choose to pursue them.

"You get what you put into it," says Alley. "Hard work and dedication to learning will move you along to higher places."


Looking Ahead to The Future

There are several construction firms headquartered in Arkansas, and Alley hopes the U of A online master's program can serve as a feeder program for construction management talent.

"The sky is the limit," he says. "By understanding at a higher level all the components of construction management, a promising future awaits — up to and including, CEO [chief executive officer]."

What needs to happen to encourage young professionals to see construction management as a worthwhile career pursuit?

"Those working in the industry already should know that there is the possibility to amplify and expand your skills, to learn the business aspects of the industry," says Alley. "Young people should know that skilled workers in trades are earning a good living in a rewarding field." In other words, forget the color of your collar. It's your skillset that matters.

Alley hopes that changing stereotypes and looking at the profession with a more holistic approach will lead to other changes as well, including further participation of women in the field.

"Nothing will please me more than seeing the first female graduate with a master's degree from this program," says Alley.

Alley has high hopes for the program's future and wants to see it continue to hire experienced teachers who can bridge the gap between what's learned in the classroom and what's happening on a job site. The industry, says Alley, is constantly developing and so should the online master's program.

"The program should stay up to date with the latest trends to really prepare leaders for the future of the industry."

As for what advice he would offer a high school student or young professional looking at construction as a career?

"Follow your passion, this industry is exciting and rewarding. It's a people business and people work with people."

Please visit the program page on our website to learn more about the Online Sam and Janet Alley Master of Science in Construction Management, the curriculum, costs and admission requirements.

Online Learner Blog Home


Online Sam and Janet Alley Master of Science in Construction Management

The online Sam and Janet Alley Master of Science in Construction Management is the first of its kind in the state and fills a growing need for construction leadership and expertise in all phases of development. Identified as a critical resource by public and private construction industry leaders, this program will give construction managers who already have a bachelor’s degree the necessary skills to lead a construction project from the design phase through completion.

Program Page