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Closed Offices Present Challenges for College Students Looking to Enter the CRE Industry

Many are having difficulty completing their programs’ internship requirements, and onboarding for first jobs is challenging via Zoom.

The COVID-19 lockdown has been a real spoiler and source of frustration for many U.S. college students studying real estate and seeking summer internships, as well as recent grads looking for their first jobs.

An internship, which provides real world, on-the-job experience, is a requirement for completing the University of California Los Angeles’ (UCLA) real estate program, notes Tim Kawahara, executive director of the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, UCLA Anderson School of Management.

But while that large real estate firms like CBRE, JLL and Colliers International honored internships offered to students prior to lockdowns, none were offered afterwards and effective internships going forward were shortened, Kawahara notes. Additionally, smaller, local companies that had offered internships rescinded them. A handful of students had two or three internships rescinded, according to Kawahara.

As a result, the UCLA real estate program dropped the minimum number of internship hours required during the lockdown. Kawahara also came up with an alternative for students who could not secure an internship, assigning them a group field project in lieu of fulfilling the internship requirement.

The remote work situation is another source of anxiety for interns and new graduates starting their first jobs, as “they never meet their bosses or coworkers in person,” he notes.

The lockdown has made networking a real challenge for students and recent graduates, who are using all means of communication—phone, email, social channels and other digital tools to connect with real estate professionals. To help foster those connections, the Ziman Center provides students and graduates with Zoom introductions to UCLA real estate alumni.

All June graduates but one have secured a position with a real estate firm, but onboarding activities, such as training and integration into the company culture, have been delayed until the end of summer, according to Kawahara.

Training programs have changed too. Large real estate companies have traditionally rotated new recruits through different offices and roles within the company to broaden the scope of their experience. Due to the lockdown and coronavirus-related travel challenges, this is no longer happening. Now new recruits must select an office and role within the company where they want to start their careers.

Real estate students at the University of Washington (UW) are facing similar challenges, according to Christopher Campbell, acting chair of the UW Runstad Department of Real Estate. “There are fewer internships available and the work students do has moved online,” he says, noting that interns, who have a bachelor’s degree and at least a year of graduate work, generally learn the culture of the office and nuts and bolts of real estate working in an office environment.

“Internships are valuable because students get experience under their belt, and this is often the step in a long-term position with the company where they are interning,” Campbell notes. Additionally, he says internships provide tangible, on-the-job training; enable students to use what they learned in the classroom in the real world—get a sense of how projects work; and help them build a network and professional resume.

But amid the pandemic, hiring has slowed and not all of the UW graduates have found a professional position. Those who have jobs are starting their careers working remotely and communicating with their superiors and coworkers on Zoom. “The shift to an online environment presents a big networking challenge,” Campbell says. “It’s hard to reach folks (who can help graduates seeking a job) when you can’t get in front of people.”

In addition, starting a job online makes onboarding difficult, he adds. The UW students easily adapt new online technologies, “but the soft, social stuff is missing.” As a consequence, students are feeling a lot of stress and uncertainty about their futures.

While real estate students are aware of the cyclical nature of the industry, it’s hard to cope when so much is unknown, Campbell notes. “There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, as no one has seen this model of a downturn before, so we don’t know how to prepare for it.”

However, while some real estate companies are reducing their workforces, Campbell suggests that this next generation of young people have an advantage over older workers working remotely because they are better with technology.  

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