Workers on construction site

Under Construction: Returning Students Switch Gears & Careers

August 24, 2021

When Ryan Goltz returned to college at the age of 45, it wasn’t easy. “I graduated in 1994—there was no email,” he said, referring to his time as an undergraduate. But Goltz is one of many students choosing to attend CU Denver’s Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) program—as part of a career shift.

Denver Building Boom

As the cranes dotting Denver’s skyline indicate, the city is in the middle of a construction boom. Recent industry data rates Denver in the top 15 U.S. cities for construction. Demand is high at a time when the city has a shortage of skilled construction workers and construction management professionals. With certificate and master’s programs in CEM, the College of Engineering, Design and Computing is helping to get qualified graduates into the field and into the workforce.

Assistant Professor Heidi Brothers, PhD, pointed out recent CEM graduates with bachelor’s degrees in diverse fields, including business, communication, education, and environmental science. “Yes, you can go into the CEM program without undergraduate experience in the field,” she said. “Our graduates are looking for a significant career change. They’re looking for something that pays well and has long-term security.” 

At Top and middle: Ryan Goltz during his time working for Kiewit; Bottom: Will Pillsbury on site in the Denver area.

Learning on the Job

Despite having to learn to use email (not to mention complex software), Goltz ’16 is happy he earned his graduate-level certificate in construction project management. He found work with Kiewit, one of the city’s largest construction companies. “Heidi [Brothers] knows everybody in town. If you want to change your network, this is the place,” he said.

Will Pillsbury ’18, who earned a master’s degree in CEM, currently works as an estimator II for GE Johnson, a large construction firm in the Denver area. “Professor Brothers was really the one who got me my first internship at GE Johnson,” he said. “I worked on the U.S. Olympic Museum project.”

Associate Professor Caroline Clevenger, PhD, established the CEM graduate certificate program in 2015, working with the Business School and the College of Architecture and Planning to create an interdisciplinary program focused on practical industry knowledge. “She’s really a visionary,” Brothers said. “What’s she’s done with the interdisciplinary certificate program is amazing. There is such a demand for these programs and what we offer.”  

Goltz appreciates that CEM offers job security: “If you look at the last year with covid, construction was considered essential. It’s a sustainable profession.” Pillsbury thinks it’s especially helpful to be employed in the field in Denver. “The building boom probably did help me as far as being influenced by current market,” he said. “That did play into my decision to go back to school and get a degree in construction, but it wasn’t the whole reason why. I had interest and passion for construction. I would have ended up there even if we weren’t in a booming market.”

Program Works with Industry Partners

Goltz and Pillsbury, as well as Professor Brothers, stressed that CU Denver’s CEM graduate programs provide real-world skills. In fact, partnerships with local construction companies have been part of the CEM programs since their inception. “We have Denver support and industry support,” Brothers said. “And then our graduates come back and say we’ve changed their lives.”

Goltz wants people to know about CU Denver’s CEM programs. “What the school has to offer is great,” he said. Now he’d just like to change the popular perception about people who work in the industry. “The stigma of people in construction needs to change,” he said. “When you actually see these operations, the multimillion dollar budgets, and the processes and procedures you have to follow, it’s not blue collar.”