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'A Tough Road': Grads Pursuing CRE Gigs Have Opportunities In Upswing

The last year and a half has been anything but normal for college students coping with remote learning, Covid and dire economic prospects. But for those looking to get into commercial real estate, the rapid shifts in the industry and overall economic picture this spring portend better chances for landing jobs, albeit it during an unprecedented time of flux.

“The fortunate thing for students in 2021 is that some of the darkness has started to lift,” Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate, Roosevelt University Executive Director Collete English Dixon said. 

College graduates face a tough challenge networking and finding new commercial real estate jobs right now.

But that coming light perhaps has only illuminated many of the tricky situations inherent in getting hired for that first CRE job in 2021. On-the-job learning may be replaced with remote or hybrid collaboration. The networking and internship opportunities that might have opened doors in the past have disappeared or diminished during the coronavirus pandemic. And while there has been an emergence of more and more real estate-specific degree programs in undergrad and grad school in the past decade, it’s still an emerging specialty, and many students may not have the opportunity to obtain such a concentration at their school. 

While there is a recovery, it’s still important to cast a broad net and have the right set of skills to appeal to employers. English Dixon said that students have a broader landscape of opportunities than they did a year ago, but they’ll need to data-mine opportunities online and be flexible. 

“One of the things I’ve emphasized to graduates and undergraduates is you need to think about how you can apply your broad set of skills,” English Dixon said. “Don’t say ‘I can only’ or “I only want to work for …’ 

It’s also important to be straightforward, Peninsula Commercial Real Estate Group principal Corina Irvin said. Irvin is a Torrance, California-based professional who co-founded Asian CRE Network.

“Be honest when applying, it’s a tough road,” Irvin said. “People want to help people who are honest and not asking for a handout.”

Irvin, English Dixon and others who work with or assist those just getting started in CRE underscore the value of aggressive networking, especially at a time when in-person events and meetings are still limited. Spencer Burton, head of real estate investments for Denver-based Stablewood Properties and a co-founder of the Adventures in CRE website, said students seeking jobs postgraduation should constantly be in touch with professionals.

He recommends weekly calls with pros, peppering them with questions during 15-to-20 minute information sessions and trying to fill in knowledge gaps.  

“This is the most valuable technique students can use, engaging with professionals every week,” Burton said. “Students have this access to industry professionals nobody else has. Email and ask for a quick chat; it’s access you won’t have the rest of your career.” 

Irvin puts it more bluntly; network or not work. For the newly graduated, now is a perfect time to network and speak to professionals willing to share advice or time, even to cold-call people. She also recommended investing in larger networking groups; groups like Asian CRE Network, the Black Commercial Real Estate Network, CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), Filipinos in Institutional Real Estate (FIIRE), offer mentorship programs, courses geared toward young professionals, and opportunities to meet senior members. In addition, most trade organizations in commercial real estate, such as the Urban Land Institute or regional/metro-area groups, have young professional groups and events for those at the beginning of their career.

Burton said now is a particularly interesting time for those with a little experience in the field; there’s lots of demand for young professionals or those coming out of business school. For undergrads, or those graduating without a real estate-specific degree, “it’s an uphill battle in this current environment."

“The market is hot and there’s lots of activity and need, but many fear a ‘sugar rush,’ and worry about how long the good times will last,” he said. “Firms want new hires who can help out with the backlog in the pipeline on day one." 

Burton said all students and job seekers, from multifamily to industrial to retail, can prepare themselves by understanding entry-level positions in CRE and obtaining as much of the requisite skill set as possible. For the most part, that’s taking an analyst role, which typically pays $60K or more annually per a compensation survey by CEL & Associates, and likely spending a lot of time tooling around a spreadsheet. 

“Understanding how to model cash flows, financial models, that’s how you add value on day one,” he said. “It’s learned through practice and iteration. Many don’t have the will to put in the time to learn.”  

When it comes to graduates finding that first job, Dixon sees 2021 as no harder or easier than 2019 or 2018. The industry, often dominated by small family and mom-and-pop firms, has also made more efforts to broaden its reach and hire diverse talent, meaning more graduates should have opportunities to land jobs. But the real challenge, and opportunity, lies in developing and building up experience. 

“Learning during a recession, or tough times like this is a great time to learn,” English Dixon said. “There is an upswing coming.” 

Related Topics: Graduate School, salary, CRE Jobs