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—  13 min read

Career Paths to Management in Construction

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Last Updated May 21, 2024

Construction professional looks into the distance while holding plans

Professionals in construction management oversee all components of a construction project to ensure its successful and timely completion while managing costs, quality and safety.  

The path to working in a construction management role is often varied and diverse. While some individuals pursue formal education with degrees in construction management, engineering, or related fields, others ascend through the ranks, starting as laborers. Notably, some may not pursue a bachelor's degree, or if they do, it might be in a field unrelated to construction.

A key determinant of success in construction management is gaining hands-on experience onsite and acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies involved in the entire construction process.

Gaining experience at various levels allows individuals to develop a comprehensive understanding of the construction process, project management, and leadership skills. This knowledge and experience become instrumental when seeking management positions within the industry. As individuals progress in their careers, they may transition from hands-on roles to more strategic and senior managerial positions, contributing to the successful execution of construction projects.

In this article, we will delve into the three prevalent career pathways leading to construction management. We'll explore not only the key trajectories that individuals typically follow, but also the diverse roles they often occupy along their professional journey.

Contents

Table of contents

Trades Pathway

One common and often more traditional pathway to construction management roles begins by starting in the industry in the trades. This means that an individual will begin their career in the skilled trades and eventually and sequentially transition to more complex and managerial roles on a construction site. 

The trades pathway offers a dynamic and hands-on route to construction management, allowing individuals to cultivate specialized skills before taking on leadership roles. As individuals navigate this pathway, they progress through distinct roles, each marked by increasing responsibility and expertise. From the foundational role of a laborer to the pinnacle position of a general superintendent, each step in this journey contributes to a well-rounded understanding of the construction industry. Let's delve into the key roles within the trades pathway, highlighting the unique responsibilities and skills demanded in each position.

Laborer

A laborer is extensively engaged in onsite activities, undertaking a range of physical tasks that demand manual labor and hands-on involvement. These physically demanding tasks include lifting and carrying materials, digging, trenching, and using hand tools for various construction activities. 

For many individuals, the laborer position stands as the initial stepping stone into the construction industry. It offers a valuable opportunity to amass hands-on experience and exposure to various facets of construction work.

In their role, laborers typically help to ensure the worksite is well-maintained and organized, promoting both safety and operational efficiency. Their key responsibilities are promptly following instructions from supervisors, including superintendents and foremen, and strictly adhering to safety guidelines and regulations.

Noteworthy indicators for advancement in this role encompass a strong work ethic and meticulous attention to detail. These qualities serve as clear signals of a laborer's potential for growth within the construction field. For those starting as a laborer in the industry and looking to get promoted, ambition is key. To secure promotions and move up the ladder, it's crucial to be proactive, consistently seek opportunities to assist others onsite, and continually expand one's knowledge and skillset.

Apprentice

Following their experience as a laborer, individuals often contemplate whether to transition into the role of an apprentice, seeking a more specialized and in-depth understanding of a specific trade. 

An apprentice is someone who is undergoing practical training and gaining hands-on experience in a specific trade or role under the guidance of a more experienced and skilled tradesperson, such as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, or HVAC technician. 

Apprenticeships serve as structured programs — usually one to six years in length — designed to provide these individuals with the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to become proficient in their particular trade. They learn by observing, assisting, and gradually taking on more responsibilities. As apprentices gain experience and demonstrate competence, they take on more complex tasks. An apprentice who completes a formal program in a specific trade or craft becomes a journeyman, indicating a certain level of proficiency, expertise, and competence. 

Much like laborers, apprentices can demonstrate their readiness for promotion through strict attention to detail and a high level of proficiency in their craft. An apprentice's attention to detail signifies not only a commitment to quality work but also a deeper understanding of the intricacies within their specific trade and the impacts on the greater construction site. 

Beyond individual skills, an additional factor is an apprentice's ability to collaborate effectively within a team environment. Apprentices with initiative and a continuous desire to learn beyond their immediate responsibilities demonstrate their potential for assuming greater responsibilities within the construction management hierarchy. 

Journeyman

A journeyperson, also referred to as a craft professional, is a skilled worker who has completed an apprenticeship in a specific trade or craft. Depending on the particular trade, geographical location or union affiliation, journeypeople may be required to obtain specific licenses or certifications. 

Having successfully navigated the training and hands-on experience during the apprenticeship, journeypeople possess a high level of expertise in their craft, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other specialized area. 

They can independently execute tasks, interpret complex blueprints and apply advanced techniques within their field of specialization.

A Journeyperson usually helps train apprentices, serving as mentors and passing on their knowledge and skills to the next generation of tradespeople. Signs that an individual is prepared for promotion include their willingness to take on additional responsibilities or mentor apprentices. Furthermore, their dedication to ongoing learning, keeping up with industry trends, embracing new technologies, and adapting to evolving best practices are clear indications of their potential for advancement.

Foreman

A foreperson — also referred to as a site foreperson — plays a key onsite management position in construction. Forepeople are primarily responsible for supervising and coordinating the daily activities of a specific crew or group of workers on the construction site, providing direction, guidance, and support to ensure that work is carried out efficiently and according to the plans. 

Forepeople play a crucial role in construction projects by overseeing the completion of tasks and ensuring the necessary tools, equipment, and materials are available. In addition to supervising and delegating tasks to their team, forepeople spend a significant portion of their time on the construction site, offering hands-on guidance and support. Their focus is on facilitating productivity and assisting their crew in successfully executing their specific tasks.

Superintendent

The superintendent is in charge of managing the construction site and is responsible for the successful completion of the project as a whole. They oversee all on-site activities, ensuring that work proceeds according to the project schedule and meets specified standards. 

The superintendent is focused on the tactical aspects of the project. They work closely with the project manager and convey any onsite updates or changes that impact the project’s strategic decision-making, budgeting and planning. 

The superintendent also develops and manages the overall construction schedule. Unlike foremen, superintendents coordinate multiple trades and crews and ensure that all aspects of the project are progressing according to schedule. 

A key piece of this is sequencing tasks or trades correctly to maintain a smooth and efficient workflow. The superintendent also conducts regular inspections across various trades to ensure they meet the specified standard and align with the specifications. 

Assistant Superintendent

The progression from foreperson to superintendent can vary based on the individual's skillset and the practices of the construction firm. In some cases, foremen may transition to the role of assistant superintendent before assuming the responsibilities of a superintendent. This step allows individuals to develop their managerial and site coordination skills further, preparing them for the broader oversight required at the superintendent level. 

General Superintendent

After excelling in the role of superintendent, individuals may progress to become general superintendents. General superintendents usually manage the most extensive and intricate stand-alone projects (often multi-phased) or oversee the simultaneous execution of multiple complex projects. 

They guide projects from the initial planning phase to completion, providing comprehensive management and oversight to ensure alignment with the firm’s operating standards and the client’s expectations. Their duties encompass coordinating multiple project teams, managing budgets, upholding quality standards and fostering a safe jobsite culture. Proficient in strategic planning and adept at problem-solving, general superintendents significantly contribute to the successful and efficient execution of large-scale construction projects.

Education Pathway

The education pathway to construction management is a structured approach that combines academic knowledge, practical experience, and professional development to prepare individuals for leadership roles in the construction industry. 

Starting with a foundational education in construction management, civil engineering, or a related field through a bachelor's degree, individuals gain a comprehensive understanding of construction processes, project management principles, and industry regulations. Internships and other technical programs provide hands-on experience, allowing students to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world settings.

As individuals transition from studying construction in college to working on construction projects, they begin to apply and expand upon the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Once they advance to greater levels of management, the roles they assume become progressively more intricate and demanding, carrying greater responsibilities. Beginning as a project engineer and advancing to the role of a project executive, each position affords the individual a greater understanding of construction best practices and the industry as a whole. 

Let's explore some pivotal positions within this pathway and delve into the associated responsibilities and skills for each. 

Project Engineer

The project engineer collaborates closely with the project manager to help successfully execute the project. Project engineers are responsible for maintaining accurate and up-to-date project documentation, including drawings and specifications, as-builts, submittals, requests for information (RFIs), contracts and change orders

The project engineer serves as the right hand to the project manager and helps their plan get executed. They assist in coordinating various project activities, including scheduling, budgeting, and resource allocation. Project engineers are often responsible for facilitating communication between stakeholders including the architecture and engineering teams and subcontractors. 

Project engineers gain valuable experience by integrating engineering principles into the construction process, collaborating with architects and designers to ensure seamless project execution. Their promotion within the construction management hierarchy is often influenced by their innovative problem-solving ability, demonstrated technical expertise, and honed project management skills, showcasing their ability to contribute significantly to the successful delivery of projects as well as consider projects from a holistic perspective.

Project Manager

While the project engineer focuses on the technical and coordination aspects of construction projects, the project manager serves a broader and more strategic role. Project managers provide leadership, make high-level decisions, and oversee the project from a comprehensive perspective. 

Project managers frequently act as the primary point of contact on a day-to-day basis for a project. In the event of an issue, the client directly communicates with the project manager, who assumes direct responsibility for its resolution. Ultimately, they bear the overarching burden of the project's overall success, ensuring client expectations are met, budgets are maintained, and timelines are adhered to.

Assistant Project Manager

Similar to the trajectory in the trades pathway, individuals may undergo a transition from the role of a project engineer to that of an assistant project manager before advancing to the position of project manager. This sequential progression allows individuals to gradually assume greater responsibilities and refine their managerial skills. 

Assitant project managers often engage in more comprehensive project oversight, contributing to planning, coordination and decision-making. This intermediary role serves as a crucial stepping stone, providing valuable experience and exposure to diverse aspects of project management, preparing individuals for the broader responsibilities they will encounter as project managers in the later stages of their career progression. 

In the context of larger or more intricate projects, a project manager may provide mentorship to an assistant project manager. As the project unfolds and advances to its later stages, this mentoring process often results in the assistant project manager seamlessly transitioning into the role and associated responsibilities of a project manager. 

Senior Project Manager

A senior project manager commonly takes on the responsibility of overseeing multiple large-scale projects, requiring adept management of diverse teams to ensure the successful delivery of each project. A pivotal aspect of this role is the comprehensive engagement in risk assessment and management

This involves not only identifying potential challenges but proactively anticipating and implementing mitigation strategies to address issues that could adversely impact the seamless execution of projects. The senior project manager's purview extends beyond day-to-day project activities to encompass a strategic perspective, safeguarding the overarching goal of delivering successful projects simultaneously.

Project Executive

A project executive assumes the role of overseeing multiple project teams, focusing on the profitability and holistic success of each project within their designated market sector (for example: education, industrial). 

Drawing upon their extensive experience as seasoned project managers, they embrace the responsibility of guiding and mentoring several teams. With a wealth of expertise in project leadership, they actively tackle challenges, optimize processes, and pursue new opportunities. 

Their knowledge helps guide the overall trajectory, completion, and financial outcomes of projects, including negotiating favorable contract terms for successful execution. In addition, project executives are pivotal in developing strategic, long-range plans that align with and drive the achievement of organizational objectives.

Non-traditional Pathway

While the education and trade pathways represent the most prevalent routes to construction management roles, a multitude of possibilities exists for individuals to navigate their way into these positions. The multifaceted nature of construction management provides an extensive range of opportunities. 

Whether individuals opt to work for a general contractor, subcontractor, owner/developer or even on the vendor or material side, the multidisciplinary nature of the field accommodates various entry points and career trajectories. This diversity offers flexibility for different types of career growth and specialization within the industry itself. 

Whether someone starts their journey through formal education, apprenticeship, or another avenue, amalgamating these pathways creates a dynamic and multifaceted workforce.

The varied experiences introduced through these pathways foster greater innovation and problem-solving. Individuals entering construction management from different paths bring distinct insights and approaches to tackling challenges. This diversity of thought enhances the industry's adaptability to changing landscapes, ensuring that construction management is well-equipped to navigate a wide range of scenarios.

Furthermore, this diversity contributes to a more inclusive and resilient industry. This not only broadens the talent pool but also promotes a culture of collaboration and mutual learning, further fostering a dynamic and thriving construction landscape.

In the dynamic and multifaceted realm of construction management, success is intricately tied to the combination of practical experience and a strong technical foundation. The synergy between hands-on involvement and a profound understanding of the technical complexities serves as the cornerstone for achieving both success and advancement in this perpetually evolving industry. 

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Written by

Jacob Kunken

16 articles

Jake Kunken currently works as Solutions Engineer for Procore's Heavy Civil division. He brings 14 years of experience working in various construction roles in New York and Colorado, including laborer, assistant carpenter, carpenter, assistant superintendent, superintendent, construction manager, safety manager, and project manager. Jake also spent time in EHS as an environmental engineer for Skanska. He’s worked on more than 40 commercial projects from ground-up, to heavy civil, hospital work, and tenant improvement. Jake studied Ecological Technology Design at the University of Maryland.

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Taylor Riso

43 articles

Taylor Riso is a marketing professional with more than 10 years of experience in the construction industry. Skilled in content development and marketing strategies, she leverages her diverse experience to help professionals in the built environment. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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Janine Trinidad

15 articles

Janine Trinidad is a Senior Trainer on the Construction Education team at Procore. In previous roles, Janine managed preconstruction, construction, and turnover on hotel, mixed-use, and institutional projects in the San Francisco Bay area. She was responsible for negotiating contract budgets and change orders, managing RFIs and submittals, and overseeing quality control, among many other project duties. She is also a certified yoga instructor and performance artist. She currently lives in San Diego.

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