Changing Career Paths

Alexander Norman had grown weary of his demanding regimen as project manager for a major talent agency in New York. His day consisted of participating in conference calls, creating PowerPoint presentations and plowing through paperwork.

One morning after Norman hung up the phone following a grueling meeting over “trivial talent issues,” he realized he was fed up. Norman had already considered a possible transition into the real estate field, but after the phone conference he became convinced it was a career move that he needed to make.

“I was just servicing these people, and for me, I wasn't making any kind of an impact. So, I felt that real estate development would be my path because I could actually do something for the community,” he says.

Norman is one of a growing number of degreed professionals from other fields who are changing their career paths and heading back to the classroom to study commercial real estate.

“We're finding that when they come to us, on both the degree and non-degree side, they tend to be more educated than they had been five years ago,” says Stephen Peca, adjunct professor at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at New York University and managing director for Concourse Realty Group LLC. “They already have advanced degrees in other areas, or 10 to 15 years of experience.”

Multiple degrees advised

Real estate's attraction to successful professionals from every field — ranging from medicine and law to architecture and banking — is helping to boost enrollment figures. “Our graduate school has about 725 students,” says Peca, “and three or four years ago we only had 300 to 400 students. Over the past three years, we've had to turn a lot of people away.”

In the past, it was not uncommon for someone to get into real estate with little experience or by networking, but now more background knowledge is required to be successful in the industry, says Mark Levine, professor and director of Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

“Now they're recognizing there are many areas of real estate that are more sophisticated with finance, marketing and concepts of real estate law, so they need more formal education. We get a lot of people in our program that come with a background in other areas.”

These students are able to impress prospective employers with substantial knowledge and experience as well as degrees in other fields that may prove beneficial in the real estate industry. And many students who have multiple degrees are effortlessly finding work once they get into real estate, says Levine.

“To an employer, someone who has a master's degree in real estate development and also has a law degree provides a great advantage because multiple degrees add that much more value. As a result, our students are easily placed in good jobs. They have more offers than they can accept,” he says.

Alexandra Kau is a perfect example. After graduating from Jacksonville University in Florida with a degree in Business Administration, she later earned two law degrees and became a partner of a law firm before deciding to enroll in real estate courses at NYU.

“I pursued law and have been practicing law for ten years, but I've always had a real interest in commercial real estate development and have recently been pursuing that interest by taking classes at NYU,” says Kau.

Why now?

“Real estate is where there's money to be made. There are solid returns to be had, and people are starting to understand real estate in general and that it's not some strange investment vehicle,” says Peca. “It's a nice, comfortable, well-tested vehicle that has a relatively deep market profile.”

With the recent real estate boom there is a perception professionals can earn more income and receive a more tangible reward in real estate than in their current occupations. Although these perceptions can provide great motivation to jump into the industry, many professionals are entering the real estate field because they are discontent in their current career, says Cydney Donnell, director of real estate programs for Mays Business School at Texas A&M.

“They're moving from their old industry and into real estate. Many want to leave the industry they've been in and start anew, and their motivation is that they are interested in a new career.”

Norman, a student at NYU, who had a 12-year career outside of real estate, recently made the decision to return to school to study real estate development. Norman studied business and entrepreneurship in college and started his first company, Ranor Inc., in 1995, which specialized in marketing and merchandising.

Three years later, he decided to sell his company and move into the advertising field. He remained there until 2005 when he sold his second company, a consulting agency, and began working in entertainment as a project manager for a talent agency. It was in that position Norman found his final inspiration to move into real estate. “My relationship with entertainment enabled me to see what my potential could be through the vehicle of real estate,” he says.

After taking a few classes at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Norman decided to enroll in the school's graduate certificate program.

In short, the entrepreneur became convinced that in commercial real estate, he could make money and have an impact. “The prospect of being able to create a product of value that is tangible is something I really admire and was unable to achieve through the entertainment industry,” he says.

Testing the waters

It may seem like a drastic decision for someone to leave his or her established career to work in a field commonly described as a “boom-and-bust” industry, but many professionals are taking courses — before they take the plunge — to better understand commercial real estate.

Once the courses are completed, they either conclude real estate is not for them, or do exactly the opposite and begin to make the transition. The majority decide the latter. “We find that many people start out on the non-degree track and get so excited that they then join the master's degree program and there's a clear trend there,” says Peca.

It is also common for professionals who have previously earned three and four degrees to be less interested in earning a real estate degree, but more focused on learning the material. Even though they may sign up for the non-degree track, many continue to take more courses than required, and a number even become eligible for a certificate or degree, says Peca.

“During the non-degree open house, there are people there who have JDs [juris doctor law degree], MBAs and other miscellaneous degrees and we say to them, ‘If you're this interested in real estate, you should go for the Master of Science in Real Estate.’ The response is often, ‘I don't want another degree — I just want to get the information so I can use it.’”

This trend has also created a significant demand for courses that cater to professionals breaking into the industry, and some colleges and universities are making adjustments accordingly.

“As a result of the students' level of education when they come to us, we are trying to create a series of postgraduate courses,” says Peca. In the spring, NYU will begin an advanced entrepreneurial program. This three-month program is intended to teach students how to turn real estate into a business. It will cover topics such as decision-making, analysis systems and leadership. The program is offered in both the degree and non-degree paths on an application basis.

Real estate taxation, a required course for real estate majors at the University of Denver, is an example of a course that is modified frequently to accommodate changes in the marketplace. “Sometimes the title of the course may not change, but the curriculum of the course does,” says Levine. “We're always changing the curriculum to adjust with the changes in the market.”

International professionals

Professors have noticed international students taking part in this trend. Professionals across the globe — from Greece to the Republic of Georgia and Switzerland to South Korea — come to the U.S. specifically to study real estate. “In our master's program, more than one-third of our students are international students,” says Levine.

They are taking advantage of the skills they can acquire from U.S. real estate programs, and applying that knowledge to the industry in their native lands.

Some may stay in the U.S. for a couple of years and become a practitioner to gain experience, but ultimately many intend to take the techniques learned and enter into the commercial real estate industry in their respective countries, says Peca.

“Certainly we've seen students from other countries wanting to get into the real estate industry,” says Donnell of Texas A&M. “Last semester there was a woman from China who's going back to China to work in the industry there. I suspect we will continue to see this trend because there are a lot of investors in the United States investing in other countries.”

Thea Hahn, a former architect and currently a senior analyst for Corporate Portfolio Analytics, a Boston-based corporate real estate consulting company, also has noticed an increasing number of international students during her courses at the MIT Center for Real Estate.

“Out of a class of 30, probably five or six people were international students,” says Hahn. “There are always people writing their final thesis on how REITs can be established in their country and how [what they learned] can be applied to other countries.”

Without exceptions

Peca has also noticed that the college classrooms are flooded with professionals in their mid-20s to early 40s whose backgrounds run the gamut. He has witnessed a broad sampling of students coming from marketing, health care, television and movie production. And last term, he added his first marine biologist to the growing list.

“I'll see people in the non-degree side coming in with a very broad background. It can be anything from a woman who has been a house wife for 30 years, who decided to get into real estate, to a Wall Street stock trader who wants to give up the business, to a guy who runs the pizza parlor down the street.”

Among the professionals taking an interest in commercial real estate, there is one sector in particular they are flocking to more than others — development. A disproportionate number of students are finding their niche in development and taking courses to gain expertise. Students believe development is where they can earn significant returns, says Raphael Bostic, director of the Master in Real Estate Development Program at the University of Southern California.

In spite of the unpredictability of real estate, it has proven to be a smart career choice for many professionals. In turn, those professionals may provoke employers to raise the bar and demand more from their employees.

“Various aspects of real estate require a broader understanding of other industries,” says Norman. “Having a background or having experience outside of real estate can benefit you. I think it's very good to have a different background coming into the industry because you're bringing a new perspective, new ideas and new associations.”

Danyale Phillips is an Atlanta-based writer.

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