Planting the seeds of knowledge

Preparing the next generation of successful real estate professionals requires the integration of industry technology training at the collegiate level. Exposure to real estate software in an academic setting strengthens residential property management (RPM) programs and produces more competent graduates.

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Such programs, however, are rare: the National Apartment Association Education Institution (NAAEI) reports that out of 4140 institutions in the U.S., only about forty-five offer RPM programs. Of those, only nine currently provide access to industry software training.

A new initiative through NAAEI aims to improve RPM programs through hands-on training for students.

An evolving industry
Surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that technology knowledge is now a requirement in the real estate profession. In 2012, a high school diploma was often adequate education when seeking employment as a residential property manager. Today, property management companies are more likely to seek college graduates with software experience to fill those roles.

Although property management software improves efficiencies at the property and corporate levels, few institutions offer software training as part of RPM curricula. Real estate management is one of the few fields to experience this delay. Architecture students will graduate with exposure to a program like AutoCAD, for example. Most RPM graduates, however, will not receive adequate training in the programs used to manage multifamily properties nationwide until they are on the job.

Carla Earhart is professor and Internship Coordinator for the RPM program at the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Indiana. As she reviews students’ program evaluations, she sees a common thread.

“Many students say, ‘I wish I would’ve known about property management software before my internship,’” she recalls.

Andrew Shaw earned his masters degree in RPM at Ball State. His lack of software exposure in the curriculum at that time inspired a creative project, Integration of Industry-Specific Software, into the Ball State University RPM curriculum.

“In the industry now, a lot of what you do is in the software,” says Shaw. “Residents don’t want to come to the office if they don’t have to. Since working with software is going to be a huge part of your job, school programs should have that as a part of their curricula.”

When new hires enter the workforce underprepared, employers bear the burden of resource-intensive onboarding. The Association for Talent Development’s 2014 State of the Industry Report calculates that organizations spend an average of $1,208 per employee on training and development. Companies with fewer than 500 employees may spend more, about $1,888 per employee.

“When you’re familiar with your software, you’re a more competent employee,” Shaw concludes.

Those costs exclude “hidden expenses” as defined by the Society for Human Resource Management: time and travel costs for trainers and employees; instructional materials; equipment; the cost of the mentor, supervisor, and employee’s time; and the loss of productivity as new hires overcome a learning curve. With those factors in mind, training costs are notably greater than previously estimated.

The cost and duration of such training could be minimized if new hires received software exposure while still in school.

Solutions for a new era
To help address the training gap, an innovative initiative offers property management courses and software access to universities in the United States.

Sarah Levine, Director of Workforce Development at the National Apartment Association Education Institute (NAAEI), helps universities and companies connect to the organization’s proprietary credentialing programs. Students may choose from two of the eight available credentials as part of their degree, including Certified Apartment Manager and National Apartment Leasing Professional.

Universities can integrate NAAEI’s industry-based credentialing program into existing four-year RPM programs. The schools may also access coursework on Yardi eLearning training solution and Yardi Voyager property management software.

The software training component has quickly become a hiring differentiator, giving applicants an edge when seeking work in property management. Levine encounters many job postings that list software experience for property managers as “a definite plus.”

“Students earning credentials can show potential employers that they have this amazing foundation of skills and knowledge. When you layer the software knowledge on top of that, they have a candidate who is primed and prepped for success,” says Levine.

Yardi manager Patty Evans collaborates with NAAEI to help universities make the best of their available resources. “We want to do our part to educate and provide opportunities for the emerging workforce to qualify for those valuable positions,” says Evans.

“Participating universities stand out for their relationship with NAAEI and the technology training venture. They get the classes and hands-on practice, free of charge,” Evans says.

To date, 13 colleges participate in the program, including Virginia Technical Institute, University of Georgia, and soon Ball State University.

Widespread benefits of training
Multifamily firms benefit from a workforce with extensive property management training. Employers reduce costs and lower turnover rates. Early exposure to software will never completely eliminate the need for employer-provided education and ongoing training, but it can make a significant impact.

Earhart says, “The graduates would be quicker to integrate into the work site. They wouldn’t need as much training. That would be valuable for companies since new hires can start using the software from day one.”

“Companies can absolutely save on training costs by hiring RPM degree graduates with NAAEI credentials,” adds Levine. “They can look to NAAEI as a resource and outsource that training to us.”

In addition to shorter onboarding, multifamily firms may find that they have to hire less frequently. Levine often receives feedback from employers. Consensus from the field suggests that RPM graduates and NAAEI credential-holders are “more loyal,” and “more promotable,” especially when their companies provide ongoing training to support employee growth.

Evans has made a similar observation. “Turnover is quite high and we have to think about why people are leaving so quickly. Part of it has to do with the inaccurate expectations that they enter with, and the vast amount of training required.” She proposes that RPM degree programs with the software component could lower attrition through more thorough preparation. In short, graduates have a more realistic set of expectations when they arrive on the job.

With less staff training and turnover, multifamily firms can focus on what matters: turning leads to leases and improving resident retention.

Both employers and universities benefit from the technology-enhanced curricula.

By identifying RPM programs with integrated software training, employers can pinpoint candidates with in-depth, specialized training.

As a result of the partnership, RPM programs may experience a boost in employment rates for graduates, a noteworthy marketing feature.

“It’s imperative that RPM programs integrate software training like Yardi into our courses,” Carswell says. “Without it, will employers see the advantage of our program over, say, a small business program? They will want to hire someone who is already trained up on industry-specific software.”

Shaw agrees, “Many people won’t know to search for an RPM program rather than a general business management degree. Real estate software-intensive programs can help RPMs and their graduates stand apart from more generalized degree programs.”

Software training at the academic level also provides multifamily firms with a steady flow of fresh perspectives. New hires may reveal innovative uses for their company’s existing software.

Evans notes: “When a property management company uses a software platform for several years, their culture tends to believe that the best practices and features are what they’re used to. When you have new forces coming in from university, they come in with a different perspective. They can see areas where the employer may have limited their use of the product.”

Leading the pack
Perhaps most importantly, students with early exposure to property management software are likely to more quickly become leaders.

“They’re more promotable in a more timely fashion. We’re not surprised to see that these students are moving quickly up the career ladder,” observes Levine.

Earhart notes that after students experience the software firsthand, they approach future assignments with a greater understanding of the industry and how they can influence the success of their properties.

“Getting that information sooner will make students more productive employees but it will also make them leaders, understanding that data and how individuals impact those outcomes,” says Earhart.