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Real Estate Training Needs Analysis

Chapter 1 - Focus Groups with State and Consultant Real Estate Professionals

Analysis Table of Contents | Acknowledgments | Letter from the Directors | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Appendix

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A. Overview of Study Participants
The 30 real estate professionals who took part in this study were a lively and articulate group. Most have been in highway real estate management for much of their careers. State real estate managers tend to have worked in the same State. Independent real estate consultants, on the other hand, are more likely to have come from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g., the law) and more likely to have worked in real estate management or consulting roles in more than one State. A few of the independent real estate consultants were formerly State or Federal real estate administrators.

B. Discussion of the Findings

1. Current Environment
Everyone taking part in this study described a working environment undergoing profound change:
The number of real estate personnel is declining.
Few State highway real estate departments represented in this study have increased the number of personnel in recent years. (One highly dynamic State has in fact not hired any new real estate personnel since 1991.) All of the states and organizations represented conduct training programs. However, each State and most organizations appear to provide training in different ways.

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Changing demographics diversify workplace.
As with many professions, real estate is a field where the workforce is changing. There are more women joining the ranks than ever before. Worker expectations have also changed. Younger workers expect employers to provide increased flexibility so they can meet their personal responsibilities, including family-related roles and responsibilities.
Once a specialist, now a generalist.
Many of today's real estate managers came of age during the nation's interstate highway construction initiative, where land acquisition was rapid, construction was heavy, and manpower needs were great. Highly specialized managers were the norm. Even as highway construction shifts to a greater emphasis on upgrading and maintaining the Nation's infrastructure, the highway real estate program, in terms of acquisitions and dollars expended, remains relatively constant. This, coupled with downsizing and increased out-sourcing of real estate services, dictates that real estate staff have to become generalists.
State highway real estate jobs that were once manual now require technology.
Whereas independent consultants tend to have embraced technology, particularly computers, nearly all State real estate managers bemoaned what they perceive to be not only a lack of labor- and time-saving technology in their organizations, but also a reluctance on the part of many current real estate professionals to embrace new technology.

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More of the functions and tasks for right-of-way are being transferred from State departments of transportation to the private sector.
In some states, staffing limitations have made it necessary for some right-of-way acquisition and other highway real estate responsibilities to be transferred to private contractors. In a few states, study participants noted, mandates from senior leadership are resulting in the transference of a significant portion of formerly state-handled real estate management to the private sector.
State workers who used to be practitioners are now becoming project managers.
One of the biggest trends in State highway real estate management is what most study participants describe as a transition from "doing" to "managing". Many in this study came into their careers when Federal and State highway construction was increasing dramatically. They were hired for specific jobs. Except for real estate appraisers, outside consultants were rarely, if ever, used outside the engineering and design areas.

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But many State real estate managers described their organizations as making the transition from having people who do things, to organizations that have people who manage other people doing things.
Independent consultants perceive states' expectations of private contractors to be sometimes unreasonable.
As grateful as they are for the growing volume of real estate assignments from states, independent consultants note that some State clients expect them to achieve productivity levels unprecedented in the State environment and unreasonable given the ambiguity and cost parameters of consultant contracts.
Good real estate professionals are hard to find in both the public and private sectors.
Replacing their own ranks is a serious concern for most people in this study. State highway real estate managers worry that a whole generation of experienced real estate professionals will soon retire, leaving no staff legacy or professional continuity. While some State highway real estate departments are growing, more than a few say they have, at best, held their own. And some have not made new hires in many years or do not anticipate funding to replace retirees.

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New real estate staff at the State level are said to be coming from traditional State hiring areas.
That is, while they bring educational achievement, most lack educational exposure to many of the intricacies of day-to-day highway real estate programs and nearly all lack working experience in the field. Even when it is possible to hire experienced real estate managers from the private sector, they typically lack a practical knowledge of many of the laws and regulations that govern State real estate programs and don't have a full understanding of States' organizational culture.
As their workload increases, independent consultants are scurrying to find capable staff. Some clearly look to retiring State highway real estate workers to fill their ranks. Highly capable and "name" employees are eagerly courted by consulting firms.
When they are unable to find human resources from the State sector, independent consultants must look into the open employment market. Most consultants said that the state-to-state variations in regulatory considerations make it very hard to bring new, inexperienced people into their firms without investing considerable time, energy, money, and other resources into their development. In an environment where "time is money," independent consultants feel they must be especially diligent in maximizing learning experiences while minimizing non-billable hours.

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Although many are not too sure what form it will take, all study participants believe real estate training will continue to be required in their organizations.
As their later discussion will make clear, no one in this study believes he/she has all the answers, or fully understands what conditions will be like even five years from now. But all agree that training will still be necessary to make sure that all of the professionals in their organization are fully able to do their jobs.
2. Immediate Training Needs
Despite their varying sizes and institutional structures, all of the people taking part in this study have what they consider important training needs. Furthermore, most have similar training needs. However, how they accomplish training varies markedly from organization to organization and from State to State.
Training is an important, if sporadic, process.
All states and organizations in this study conduct training programs. All of the people who took part in this study recognize the importance of training. However, each State and most of the organizations appear to have different protocols for managing and delivering training. In both the State and consulting environments, there are procedural and sometimes cultural obstacles to the timely provision of training. While a few have formal training programs, most have what is perhaps better described as opportunistic training programs.

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Dedicated "training managers" appear to be a rarity.
This is not to say that there are not people who act as training managers. In State organizations especially, there are vast human resources and training operations. But these operations are generally focused on more universal issues such as diversity, disabilities, and a variety of "people" and supervisory skills programs rather than occupationally relevant training.
In State highway real estate departments, most study participants said there are few, if any, people whose job description is dedicated to managing real estate training. Most often, the acting real estate training manager is the senior manager in the office. However, in practice, study participants said that mid-level supervisors and employees are establishing a training agenda based more on reaction to current conditions than on a larger, formal training plan.

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Among the consulting firms represented in this study, there are few, if any, dedicated training managers. As with State agencies, this isn't to say that the need for training is not acknowledged. Rather, it merely indicates that training is handled differently in different firms. In some, the senior officer is the de facto training manager, deciding who needs what kind of training and when this training can be most smoothly integrated into the schedule. In others, individual employees and their supervisors identify training needs and seek opportunities to fill these needs.
Study participants suggest that there is little consistency in the timing of training.
Most study participants noted that training is generally an ongoing need. New employees need to "learn the ropes" and more experienced employees need to learn "the latest rules or techniques." However, beyond this there appears to be no seasonality or pattern to which training is needed or applied.

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The only guidance that study participants suggested is that State employees tend to expect to be trained during working hours with a minimum of travel disruption. Some won't travel, study participants say. Others can't because of family and other responsibilities. Still others are prevented by their own State rules from participating in training in other states or traveling lengthy distances from their bases of operation within their own states.
Consultants, on the other hand, are highly attuned to maximizing billable hours. As such, they do not like to take time away from production and the billable workweek for training. Independent consultants taking part in this study said that weekends are the best time for their people to be trained. Workers in the private sector, they said, are more accustomed to traveling to training sites during non-working hours and further do not expect to be paid for this time.

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In State real estate departments, the key to training is competing with other organizational priorities.
All State real estate managers agree that the mechanics of training funding are essentially sound. Surface Transportation Program (STP) and other funds are designated resources available for training. However, such funds are not set aside specifically for training but can be used for training within stated limits at the discretion of state management. Thus having these resources "on paper" and actually having full use of these funds are two different things. Some State real estate managers wish that STP fund expenditures for training were protected, even earmarked, so they are not diverted to project construction or other activities.
Other obstacles stand in the way of the smooth delivery of training. Both State real estate managers and consultants noted other obstacles to training.
On the State front, some State employees are unable or unwilling to participate in training because:
  • They do not want to be away from home due to family or personal responsibilities.
  • There is no budget for overnight travel. They can't or won't travel overnight. State policies restrict out-of-town travel.
  • They cannot procure a vehicle for travel to a training site unless they have more than one participant.

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Some senior State highway real estate managers also noted what some described as a generational difference between senior workers and "new" State employees. The new workers, they say, expect the State to train them at times and places that are convenient to them and during hours for which they will be paid. Managers complain that these new employees seem to lack the ambition or initiative to seek out either basic or continuing education on their own.
In the interest of fairness, some State highway real estate managers noted that some of their most tenured professional staff members likewise avoid training whenever possible. Some of these workers, they said, simply do not perceive a need for ongoing or updating training. A few, they said, just don't want to change the way they do things. Several consultants noted that they are aware of state-sponsored training to which they wish they could send their employees. However, they noted that since they are rarely invited, they are forced to find additional training that duplicates what is being offered in the State environment.
A larger problem, both State and consulting real estate managers say, is what they perceive to be a paucity of appropriate training programs.

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In at least one region, states have found ways to work together.
Most of the states represented in this study are not able to participate in joint training projects that require State employees to cross State lines. However, because there are so few State highway real estate professionals in some states, several Northwestern states have found ways to work together to bring classroom training sessions to their region.
Most persist in forcing new working paradigms into old training "boxes."
Despite increasing and frustrating problems, the majority of study participants, and particularly those working in the State government environment, persist in using the traditional centralized classroom approach to professional training. Even as they describe their attempts to vary their training models, and find it harder and harder to assemble a "class," nearly all study participants continue to think in terms of the traditional "classroom" format.
Despite demand for it from employees and a lingering sense themselves that it is the more practical approach, there appears to be very little effort to decentralize training or think in non-classroom formats. One state where real estate employees are widely dispersed uses videoconferencing to bring them together into a semblance of a "class."
One large State represented in the study has a carefully considered "manual" outlining a self-directed training protocol for new employees. But even this is occasionally supplemented by centralized classroom training.

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It's mostly a world of "no-tech" training.
Aside from the occasional use of videoconferencing, the majority of study participants are using training that does not incorporate new training technologies. Most say their instructors depend on overhead projectors, 35mm slides, and written manuals and workbooks.
Access to new technology varies across and within states.
Although all study participants believe that the technology of training will change, access to new technologies varies widely, especially among State highway real estate offices. Some have computers in the office, but not for every staff member. Some have CD-ROM readers and some do not. Some have Internet access and others do not.

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In many organizations, mentoring is a common implied training practice.
Nearly all of the people taking part in this study, State managers and independent consultants alike, noted that mentoring is commonly used to develop new employees. For some, mentoring makes it possible for workers to have some on-the-job training while they are waiting for training classes to fill or be scheduled. In other cases, particularly among independent consultants, mentoring is also used in place of formal training, allowing inexperienced workers to "learn while they earn."
Appraisers are the only professionals who require actual licensing and mandatory ongoing education.
Among the various professional disciplines involved in State highway real estate programs, study participants said that it is only appraisers who are uniformly subject to State licensing and mandatory continuing education. Most said this education is amply served by a variety of training organizations and professional societies.
Consultants who work in different states noted that some states require all consultants who may do work in these states to be licensed real estate agents in these states. Consultants find this to be very hard to comply with; in some cases, it requires hiring in-state staff where none would have been needed. Some consider this nothing more than states' attempts to collect licensing fees and protect State workers.

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States and consultants procure training based on a number of variables, including timing, cost, scope of training, consideration of travel, and the reputation of the trainer.
The most common approach is to bring expert trainers to a centralized in-state site. The National Highway Institute (NHI), the International Right of Way Association (IRWA), and other organizations and private trainers provide this service at varying perceived levels of quality.
  • Some highway real estate professionals who are members of IRWA take part in training that is offered as part of the IRWA Annual Education Seminar. Senior staff members note, however, that junior and new staff members do not typically attend this event because of budgetary limitations (RFP's).
  • Regional chapters of IRWA organize regional training sessions. These are generally thought to be good, but frequently require overnight travel, which is a problem for some states.

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Most training content is driven by practical needs. Study participants noted that the kinds of training they look for are driven by a need to develop practical skills in areas of real estate that are either changing over time or subject to significantly different interpretations from State to State. Among the topics in which states seem to be most interested now are appraisal, relocation and property management, and updates on everyday regulations. However, just as they say they are especially interested in these topics, they note that all topics cycle in and out of importance over time.
Study participants anticipate a need for training in several new areas.
Throughout their discussions, study participants identified several areas where they feel their people can or will need additional training:

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  • Relocation and acquisition - Most say there are not many places for this kind of education.
  • Property management - This is said to be part of the transition from being specialists to being generalists. But study participants also said that new staff members who come from property management jobs in the private sector also need help learning about property management in the public sector.
  • Project management - Given the change in responsibilities from being "doers" to "managers," State managers were especially strong in their belief that their people will need to learn how to manage projects and teams of outside consultants rather than do all tasks themselves. (In this regard, consultants suggest that State managers could also use help in creating and managing Requests for Proposals (RFP)).
  • Team skills - A part of project management worthy of special attention is the need for highway real estate professionals to become more proficient in working in team contexts. Study participants believe their people need help in everything from defining team roles (and learning how to be team players themselves) to managing dysfunctional teams.
  • New technology and software - All study participants believe that all highway real estate professionals need to become proficient not only with personal and laptop computers, but also with common software programs for communication, mapping, and other highway engineering functions.

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One of the inconsistent elements in all training is the instructors.
A number of study participants, including State managers and independent consultants who themselves sometimes act as trainers, complained about inconsistent instructor quality. Some complained about instructors who are highly experienced, but nonetheless are not very good presenters. Others mentioned instructors who are less than engaging in their teaching skills. Still others complained about instructors who simply have not taken the time to familiarize themselves with critical state-specific knowledge.
3. Impressions of Existing NHI Real Estate Training Courses
Study participants' remarks about NHI's training programs provide reason to enjoy a well-deserved pat on the back, as well as an opportunity to think about how to adapt for the future.
NHI is acknowledged as "the expert at what it does." No one who took part in this study was willing to say that NHI is anything but expert in its field of endeavor. All appear to likewise have respect for NHI and its staff.
Many Study participants were unaware that NHI was a unit within the Federal Highway Administration. While most realize that NHI was a Federal entity, the direct link to FHWA was not clear.

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Overall, the quality of NHI's courses is said to be strong. Study participants believe NHI has spent considerable time developing its programs; some suggest that it spends too long developing them. But in any event, the result is that NHI's courses are thought to be as good as possible without specializing in each state's laws.
NOTE: NHI and ORES are working to shorten course development time and through the IRWA "Partnering Agreement" are exploring new ways to develop and deliver courses to their customers. On-time training and web-based learning are topics being implemented by NHI/FHWA and ORES.
Awareness of NHI course offerings varies dramatically between states and independent consultants. State real estate managers taking part in this study were all generally familiar, some very much so, with the NHI course catalog. Independent consultants, on the other hand, had almost no familiarity with the catalog; some said they have never seen it.

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NHI course consistency and quality depend considerably on the instructor. Some of NHI's instructors are considered classics in their field. Study participants are anxious to procure their services and have developed what they believe are crafty ways to make sure they get the instructors they want. But they also note that some of NHI's instructors are not strong. Some are simply not well versed in the state-specific aspects of their course material. Others are simply said to be poor presenters.
NOTE: The implementation of NHI's Instructor Certification program will assure that qualified instructors are provided for all NHI courses and ORES workshops.
NHI training courses are thought to be reasonably priced, but nevertheless beyond the means of many. Study participants were very careful in how they talked about the cost of NHI training courses. Some said they would like to use a lot of NHI's programs, but simply can't afford them. Others said they can only afford to buy one a year. Most said that NHI's courses are fairly priced. But it was clear from their comments that "fairly priced" does not necessarily mean that they can be widely used. Some study participants complained about what they perceive to be difficulties in booking NHI training or reserving specific instructors. Others said the process works well for those who plan well in advance.
NOTE: NHI has adopted a new pricing policy that provides for a minimum class size with cost individually based (cost per participant). When requesting courses NHI can verify pricing information and class restrictions.

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NHI courses are offered frequently, but this is still not flexible enough for everyone's needs. Although a few people commented that there are excellent and much needed NHI programs that don't seem to have been offered in recent years, most study participants said that NHI training is available in a timely fashion. But most say it is practically impossible for NHI or any other training organization to be completely in sync with the training needs of all of the agencies that need training. Because most perceive the most critical training juncture to be that time immediately following a new hire, most study participants believe that it will never be possible for NHI to be conveniently timed for more than a few prospective users.
NHI courses are said to be of appropriate length. Most study participants believe the format length of NHI courses seems appropriate. Most believe one-day programs are too brief for complex topics. They similarly believe that three-day programs lead to participant fatigue. The best length, most believe, is two full days, or one half-day followed by a full day. Independent consultants urge NHI to be firm in making all "second" days required because in their experience some attendees begin to fade out early, if not check out completely, if they do not know that their presence is expected for a specific amount of time.

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Study participants made a number of suggestions for ways they believe NHI's training can be more useful. Study participants did not want to seem unappreciative of NHI's work. At the same time they had a number of ideas as to how NHI's programs might find greater use and utility by their core audience of State highway real estate professionals as well as others:
  • Flexibility - Study participants believe that NHI's courses should be more flexible in their size requirements and cost structure.

  • Think smaller - Many study participants, particularly State managers, believe their ranks will become fewer in the future, making it harder and harder for them to be able to assemble the minimum number of persons required for NHI classes.

  • Think outside the classroom - Study participants urge NHI to conceive of new training formats including workshops and other non-classroom formats that are non-traditional and allow potential users to experiment with flexible cost models.

  • Think about entertaining - Because so many of the people who need training today or will be needing training in the future come from a television culture, many study participants urge NHI to learn how to integrate new technology, new information dissemination techniques, and more contemporary instructors into its programs.

  • What about NHI "scholarships"? - Because State training budgets are often directed to other State programs, a few study participants suggested that STP and other Federal funds be protected for actual training by having NHI award these resources to applicants in the form of scholarships. Along this same line, some encouraged the creation of a Washington-based "national training academy" funded by STP or other Federal funds.

  • Think "open" - Because they want NHI's courses, but feel shut out from them by many of their State clients, independent consultants were quick to encourage NHI to hold training sessions on popular topics that would be open to any applicant on a first-come basis. They recognize that some of these might not be able to be conducted on a regional basis, but they urge NHI to hold as many of these as possible on a regional basis.

  • Think "single source" - Study participants encourage NHI to develop a catalog that includes all available training, not just that provided by NHI.

  • Think distributed - Study participants from all sectors encouraged NHI to take advantage of new technologies such as CD-ROMs, videoconferencing and the Internet to come up with new programs or new permutations of old programs that can be delivered in a distributed format, instead of the traditional classroom style. Rather than the traditional "one-to-many" approach of the classroom, they urge NHI to adopt a "many-to-many" distributed approach.

  • Think about "training the trainer" - Because they tend to believe the more distributed training is, the more it will be used, study participants encourage NHI to look for ways to push consistently high quality content and instruction "through the pipeline" to State and local organizations so that people in their organizations can be more aware of opportunities and serve as a knowledge resource to others.

  • Think "just in time" - Because training needs are not so much seasonal as they are related to new hiring and other demands, study participants urge NHI to look for ways to deliver highly focused training when it is needed, not when it is convenient to schedule.

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Continuing education credit or professional certification helps, but isn't enough. Some study participants said that the ability to earn continuing education credits for NHI courses would help those who require CEUs. Consultants urged NHI to work with states to make its courses acceptable for State licensing requirements. But some cautioned that only appraisers are held to formal continuing education standards. And cost will continue to be a problem for many organizations, including both states and independent consultants.
4. Envisioning the Future
Asked to think ahead five years, study participants foretold many changes:
The people will be different. Many people who give State agencies and consulting firms their basis of knowledge and experience will have retired, leaving organizations younger and less experienced. Some independent consultants believe their organizations will experience this a little later than State agencies since they expect to be able to hire some people retiring from State and Federal service. However, independent consultants foresee a time when their ranks will be not only depleted of their "gray hairs," but also without the wisdom and professional maturity that experience brings. More than a few State managers alluded to what they describe as a "new breed" of State workers. They believe these young workers are less motivated than they are and less motivated to take it upon themselves to advance their professional education without employer incentives.

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A new breed of real estate manager will replace today's practitioners. As more and more day-to-day work transfers to the private consulting sector, State managers believe that State highway professionals will become contract managers rather than skilled practitioners. They will need to become better project managers, more attuned to time management. They will need to learn how to interact effectively with outside consultants and how to be clear in creating and managing contract relationships. Other characteristics study participants believe will become important include:
  • "Big picture" perspective - It will be necessary for State highway real estate professionals to have a broader perspective of highway programs.

  • Time management - Most believe highway real estate professionals will have to become more savvy at managing their own time, scheduling their and other peoples' time, and handling multiple projects and tasks.

  • Techno-friendly - Virtually all study participants believe that highway real estate professionals of the future, whether in the public or private sector, will need a substantially greater predisposition and comfort level with technology.

  • Organizationally savvy - Budgets will continue to climb for almost everything. The future highway real estate staff/manager will need to know how to operate within the organization to ensure adequate project funding is available.

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It is expected that training will change dramatically. Study participants already believe their traditional classroom-and-overhead-projector format is outdated. And although they do not have concrete impressions of what form training may take in the future, they are sure it will be radically different. Echoing many of the suggestions made above, they believe training will be:
  • More distributed
  • More personalized and localized
  • More just-in-time
  • More online
  • More self-taught

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Analysis Table of Contents | Acknowledgments | Letter from the Directors | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Appendix

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