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Business Schools Teach Real Estate Despite Troubled Housing Market

Professionals and professors say there are jobs for M.B.A.’s with real estate training.

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The housing market might be fragile at best, but some professors and M.B.A.'s say real estate is one area where business school students can find jobs

David Hartzell, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, says between 10 percent and 15 percent of the M.B.A. cohort at UNC specializes in real estate. It's extremely rare for M.B.A. students to become real estate agents, and most seek employment in real estate investment banking, development, or investment management, says Hartzell, who is the director of the school's Center for Real Estate Development

In his 24 years at UNC, Hartzell has observed an increase in the extent to which applicants to the M.B.A. program who expressed an interest in a real estate concentration understood the field. Fifteen years ago, many applicants had no experience working in real estate, Hartzell says, but applicants today tend to have 5 ½ years of experience working in real estate.

Current applicants want an M.B.A. either to change types of real estate jobs or to gain the network and academic understanding that may position them to climb the ranks at their current companies, according to Hartzell. And, in the past two years, the number of firms recruiting UNC students with real estate concentrations has increased significantly, he says. 

Not only are recruiters showing more interest in real estate students, but media coverage of the housing crisis has led more M.B.A. students to pay attention to the real estate field, says Brian Gill, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business

[See five tips for choosing an M.B.A. concentration.] 

"It has been an area where people have both made a lot of money and lost a lot of money," says Gill, who specializes in commercial real estate. "I think there's a hunger on the part of a lot of students to understand how that system works, and whether or not there are entrepreneurial opportunities that they can exploit." 

He notes that several business schools have strong reputations for real estate, and includes the Wharton School, the Sloan School of Management, the Wisconsin School of Business, the Haas School of Business, and the McCombs School of Business among those with such programs. 

Jim Lewis, associate director of the Portland office of the international real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, has seen M.B.A.'s succeed in his field. "The M.B.A. opens doors and provides access to a wide variety of employment options in real estate," he says. 

Lewis, who holds an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, says he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of M.B.A. programs with focuses in real estate in the past 5 or 10 years. 

[Read about the reinvention of the M.B.A.]

"The industry is now much more sophisticated and analytical, which is one reason behind this trend," he says. "There is a real need for the M.B.A. type skill set." 

Jeffrey Rogers, president and chief operating officer of the commercial real estate consultancy Integra Realty Resources, says he's optimistic about the future for jobs in real estate, even if the commercial real estate market is the worst it has been in 30 years. In the next two years, Rogers expects commercial real estate to pick up as the economy recovers and the population continues to grow. 

"Given the lag before we see a significant uptick in demand and development, now would be a great time to get an M.B.A. with a real estate focus," he says. "Considering the two year investment in time, those graduating in 2014 or 2015 will be graduating into a much better market than what we currently have, with opportunities to get development experience." 

[Read more about specialty M.B.A. programs.] 

Tim Nguyen, an M.B.A. student at San Diego State University's College of Business Administration, says he is driven by a long-term strategy. 

"Many, myself included, consider this to be the Pacific century, and the United States is in a favorable position to lead the development and growth of Asia and Latin America. Americans—with the right mind set, determination, and skill sets—can reap the economic and social benefits of the expected and potential growth in population and trilateral investments," he says. "Real estate is an industry that could gain from these trends."