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In 2011, University of Minnesota construction management professor Peter Hilger played host to his own homegrown, Quiz Bowl-style game as an ice breaker to re-engage some students who had just returned from a break.

He found that the effort had a side benefit: It bolstered the public speaking skills and confidence of students who were preparing for careers in a field where those traits haven’t been emphasized.

Hilger and Gregg Johnson, a construction manager at Hammes Co. and judge at the original game, repeated the event, including several other schools in the Midwest.

Their timing was perfect. After the housing crash nearly a decade ago, there was an exodus of talent in the construction industry. At the same time, the nature of the work began to quickly change. Technology allowed more sophisticated designs of buildings and the development of construction techniques and scheduling that were more complex. That meant builders needed more managers and workers who possessed the “soft skills” that are common to white-collar office settings.

At the Minnesota Construction Association, a trade group, construction companies lamented that construction management students didn’t have the kinds of communication skills that were becoming critical to the industry.

“Teaching new employees about the construction methods was par for the course, but the members of the MCA were lost when it came to training the communication skills,” said Paul Almen, a senior attorney with Ryan Cos. and MCA president.

Almen described a young project manager who, in a meeting with company leaders, was told by his boss to talk with a colleague to remedy a situation. The young manager then pulled out his smartphone to send a text message, but he was stopped by the company’s president, who had a different idea of what it meant to talk.

“The president said, ‘Get in your car and go talk with him,’ ” Almen recalled. “That understanding of how to have that face-to-face interpersonal communication was missing.”

With their Quiz Bowl game Johnson and Hilger had already established an informal network of schools with eager-to-learn construction training and management students, so they decided to parlay that into a more formal educational outreach program that would replace one that already existed at MCA. So they created Construct*ium — a name that came from blending “construction” and “consortium.”

Construct*ium is aimed at giving future project managers an opportunity to hone a variety of skills in a nonacademic setting surrounded by potential mentors, employees and colleagues. The program is also focused on cultivating competition, collaboration, careers and course-share — the “four C’s” as they are known by MCA members.

The group sponsors a variety of events, including the Intercollegiate Quiz Bowl (now in its sixth year), the Built Environment Career Fair (now in its fifth year) and the Spring Pentathlon, the newest initiative.

And in April, the 54th Annual International Conference of the Associated Schools of Construction (ASC), which focuses on writing curriculum and sharing best teaching practices, will conduct its annual conference at the Commons Hotel on the U’s campus.

Chuck Rauenhorst, president of Rauenhorst Recruiting and chairman of the Construct*ium committee, said that, in both educational and professional settings, the “soft skills” are often the last to be taught.

With so many other time-sensitive aspects of the construction process to learn, they are not perceived as being critical, he said. New technology, such as sophisticated computer imaging and design software, takes priority, he said. Those tools have driven the concept known as “design-build” in which project construction often starts before the design is complete.

Almen said that such design-build work now accounts for at least half of all commercial construction and that trend will likely continue. “Design-build requires greater communication between the players,” he said.

Hilger said that in addition to learning how to talk with other members of the trades, construction managers and supervisors will be highly prized if they are able to present proposals.

Participants in the April Pentathlon will hone those skills by competing in several events, including sessions focused on negotiations, Pecha Kucha (a fast-paced slide show presentation), Toastmaster table topics and interviewing.

“Essentially, the objective of Construct*ium is for all partner institutions to find ways to work together, for the benefit of the entire regional and national industry — to lift all boats,” Hilger said.