In mid-March, our student association organized a panel discussion to help students prepare for when have to deal with the real world. The panelists were
- Luan Ha, Director of Development RioCan REIT
- Lisa Wolchuk, Senior Sales Leader, Cougar Software
- Maryanne McDougald, Vice President, First Capital Realty
- Tony DaSilva, Vice President, Real Estate Business Services, Laurentian Bank
- Ruth Murnaghan, Sales Representative, CBRE
The discussion was very insightful due, in part, to the probing by the moderator (our own Dr. Avis Devine).
The first theme to emerge concerned the job market. Some of the panel members had histories which went back to a time when an ambitious individual could get some money and start their own development company. It was noted that the growth of large institutional players in the market makes it is much harder for a student to do that today: the professionals are likely to see the best opportunities first. Not impossible but harder.
There were two parts to this theme. Many of the senior players in the real estate business are entering their 60s or 70s; they are thinking of retirement or slowing down. This “changing of the guard” is good news for the prospects of our alumni.
We produce many graduates each year. Lots of other people enter the industry in the way that it has always been done: as opportunities arise, as in “I never knew that I could get a job in this field.”
The challenge for people entering the industry is that a middle layer of management went missing. We have heard for several years that a group of people who might have entered the real estate industry were turned in a different direction during the 1990s and early 2000s (the dot-com bubble takes most of the blame). As a result, this missing cohort did not get the experience that they might have. So, surprisingly few people at the middle level are ready to step into the soon-to-be-vacate senior positions or to help and train the junior people to ease the transition into the about-to-be-vacated middle positions.
For our students, the basic message was positive: your education gives you a leg up on junior positions and, for people who take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, it will be relatively easy to advance quickly. More generally, many companies are devoting a lot of time to think about “succession planning”.
(To reinforce this message, I spent last Sunday meeting high school students. At that time, I chatted with a professional recruiter who had been hired by a major employer because the employer could not find the people they wanted on their own.)
The last big theme of the panel might be labelled as “where to find the best opportunities”. Given the make-up of the panel and the moderator, it may not be surprising that the focus was on tech and sustainability.
A 20 year old might think of replacing their Facebook account with a WhatsApp account (because Facebook is for the older generation). They should be thinking about the number of old computer systems used by major real estate companies. They are sold old that, when companies using different systems merge or when those systems are asked to take on new tasks (e.g. move on-line), the systems themselves create problems. It can even be hard to write a quarterly or annual financial report for investors because the system used by a property management company may not be able to talk with the system used by the institutional investor.
Eventually, these companies will have to accept the costs of a major change. At that time, anybody who can speak the language of both tech and real estate will be able to add real value.
Lastly, it was noted that, 10 years ago, “sustainability” was a non-word in the business. Now, one of the companies represented on the panel has a CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer). Now, none of the big Canadian banks would move into a building which is not LEED certified. Now, major buildings have monitors in their front lobby to show energy performance. Now, in England, individual buildings are being rated on their energy consumption, similar to the rating on a washing machine: residential and other types of property. So, graduates who understand both the good intentions for the environment and the business practicalities will be in a position to add significant value to their employer.
All in all, a night which provoked many thoughts. Thank you to the panelists and to the REHSA for organizing the panel.