In the world of trade schools and higher education, property management is a relatively young discipline. The practice of leasing and managing property is ages old, and for much of its history, if property managers were not self-taught, their training was limited to what could be learned on the job. That changed in the mid-1980s when Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) launched its property management major within its College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences—the oldest property management program in the country. Then, in 2002, Roosevelt University in Chicago opened the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate.
Both institutions are helping the real estate industry close a talent and skills gap by exposing students to the opportunities of property management and preparing them for the challenges, traditional and emerging, that face modern property managers.
“Property management is a much more complicated and multifaceted role than it was 20 years ago,” says Collete English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate.
“We’ve definitely come a long way from collecting a rent check and checking for leaks,” adds IREM Academic member Erin Hopkins, assistant professor of property management at Virginia Tech. “Modern property managers need to understand human resources, budgeting and finance, maintenance and risk management, leasing and how sustainability fits into all of these.” In many ways, learning to be a property manager is like learning to own a business—no subject matter is out of scope.
“It’s really important for students to come out of our program having learned from people who are in the trenches,” English Dixon says. “I work very closely with all our faculty to make sure our foundational courses have direct application.”
While both Virginia Tech and Roosevelt are four-year universities, their property management programs provide hybrid curricula that balance theory with practice. The programs are influenced and taught by current and past practitioners, which helps coursework reflect the pace at which industry is evolving. Although each program has its own set of requisites, here are some of the subject matter areas both identify as important for the next generation of property managers.
“Technology is incredibly hard to get your arms around,” English Dixon says, acknowledging the challenges that rapidly evolving technologies pose in almost every industry. Whether it be smart devices to increase energy efficiency, software to manage the tenant experience or business intelligence tools, technology has a reputation for high price tags and short shelf lives. Teaching students how to use it and when to employ it is a constant battle against obsolescence.
Rather than succumb to analysis paralysis, English Dixon aims to give students a foundation on which they can build. “I don’t want our young people going into their first job and have someone talk about the latest and greatest CRM [customer relationship management] system and have them go, ‘What’s a CRM system?’ They need to understand the terminology, if not the specific platform.”
Bringing in practitioners as guest lecturers allows the most flexibility to adapt courses each semester to the latest trends and tools. “It takes quite a bit of time to create a formal course,” Hopkins says, “but we’re able to insert a project, lecture or guest speaker here or there while we’re waiting for things to go through formal governance, which allows us to address topics we think need to be taught.”
In the 2020 spring semester, Virginia Tech hosted the CEO of Outer Realm, a virtual reality (VR) company that specializes in immersive visualization for real estate, and students learned how VR headsets are being leveraged in real estate marketing and leasing. The lecture complemented the school’s VR lab, where students can take virtual property tours and get familiar with the technology’s applications in their field.
It may seem that sustainability, like technology, is a moving target, but English Dixon says it’s actually a much more stable conversation in the Marshall Bennett Institute. “Sustainability has an impact on the entire built environment and can impact the social aspect of real estate, so we try to broach it in our property management, marketing and urban land management classes,” English Dixon says.
Hopkins, whose doctoral studies focused on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, says the key to teaching sustainability is considering economic and social impacts as well as ecological ones. This helps students holistically analyze all spheres of sustainability in the properties they will manage.
“We teach theories behind this such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Hopkins says, referring to the psychological theory that humans have five basic needs that must be met in sequential order. “If you’re looking at Class B or C apartments, your priority might not be LEED certification. The resident might be looking at rent, and that’s it. But what can we do from the property management side to make the building green that makes financial sense?”
Value and payback
Tech and sustainability decisions demand a good grasp of value appreciation/depreciation, return on investment and the elasticity of demand—the last of which can be a bit like trying to read a crystal ball. Both Hopkins and English Dixon acknowledge the challenges inherent in trying to teach students how to predict the longevity and appetite for capital investments in the properties they will someday manage.
“I was in the investment management space before this role, and one thing I developed was a healthy respect for property management,” English Dixon says. “I had to appreciate what property management could do to make a marginal asset a great one. The influence and impact of property management in the investment model is something I bring into conversations about what we’re teaching.”
Hopkins says that considering the lifecycle of a building and external factors, such as policy, can help students weigh their options. The operations phase is the longest phase in the building lifecycle, she says, so operations- based investments can provide some of the greatest opportunities for payback. Similarly, policy may dictate or incentivize certain investments.
Despite the many ways it has evolved, property management still requires a fairly basic skill: communication. For current and recent students, Hopkins says this has been one of the greatest challenges.
“The modern property manager still needs to know how to communicate face to face and have conflict-resolution skills, and I think that’s tough for the modern generation,” Hopkins says. Mindfulness, interpersonal skills, comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, and kindness are all important in meeting the everyday challenges of property management, she adds. “All of that really needs to be reiterated because students will be so much better able to communicate with residents and their peers.”
A beneficial approach
While Virginia Tech and Roosevelt are both committed to curricula that make students industry-ready, one of the beauties of offering property management as a business or liberal arts degree is the holistic education that complements the trade-specific content.
“There’s a worthy cause to teach students theory and critical thinking, instead of a training mentality,” Hopkins says. “Not everything will be in the textbook or the classroom. When they get into situations where there’s ambiguity, it’s those critical thinking skills that they’ll need.”