As with many other sectors, the land development and design industry has seen significant changes in the last decade. The demand for various types of developments — from residential and commercial to industrial and mixed-use — has evolved since the economic downturn, and the rate of new projects has finally picked up in the last few years. Furthermore, end users are requiring more complex developments that serve a variety of needs and are often located in redeveloped built environments.
Due to this increased complexity and the recent growth in the land development sector, many civil engineering students aren’t prepared for a career in the field. Estimates from civil engineering departments at leading universities in the United States show that as many as a quarter to a third of graduates work in the land development sector. Yet, no academic institution had a dedicated program to prepare students to tackle the unique issues associated with land development and design.
That trend changed a decade ago when Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, more commonly known as Virginia Tech, launched the Land Development Design Initiative (LDDI). This program’s primary goal is to educate and prepare civil engineering students for a career in the land development industry, including positions with engineering firms, developers, home builders, equipment manufacturers, and contractors.
Now in its 10th year, LDDI is among the most successful programs within the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. More than a thousand students have participated in the program, which has a 100 percent placement rate after graduation. Notably, this placement rate stayed at 100 percent even during the Great Recession, an indication of the true extent of need from engineering firms and other businesses involved in land development and design.
A key component of the program’s success has been its innovative partnership with the private sector. That partnership takes many forms. For example, firm leaders at dozens of engineering firms in Virginia, including firms based in the state and national firms with a presence in Virginia, serve as mentors for students. They also are guest lecturers in classes and assist students on project work. These engineering firms benefit by tapping students for internships and eventual fulltime positions in their companies. In fact, the demand is robust for students trained in the LDDI program and, increasingly, national firms are attracting students to all corners of the country.
The strategy of a partnership with private businesses is an established approach for many university departments. However, it wasn’t common practice in 2006 for the land development sector. Virginia Tech’s LDDI program was the first in the nation to create a partnership with land development firms and establish a dedicated track of course work to address this topic. It remains unique to this day, but is an approach that more academic institutions should explore and more engineering firms should support.
Among the many advantages of a program like LDDI, there are three benefits that have a significant and enduring impact for engineering firms and the land development industry.
Immediate and lasting productivity
One of the primary benefits of a program that specializes in land development and design is that new professionals can contribute to projects immediately. Traditionally, civil engineering graduates who worked in land development would require months of on-the-job training due to the diverse nature of the projects. This situation was inefficient for the engineering and design firms who hired the students. However, with so many civil engineering graduates pursuing a career in land development and a lack of training, it was the reality for most firms.
Thanks to a program that cultivates and enhances land development skills, graduates can tackle complex issues, from regulatory and zoning requirements to design challenges to sustainability concerns. The next generation of development — both new projects and redevelopment efforts — will be more complex, include a mix of uses, and will be located in or near urban areas. These projects are complicated and demand a variety of skills to design and engineer the best possible development.
For example, Kyle Bollinger, a former LDDI student who joined Kimley-Horn and Associates after graduating, recognized the immediate impact that coursework on land development and design has had on his career. He believes that the real work experience he gained through LDDI helped to jumpstart his career as a project manager and to understand all aspects of working in the land development field. This background allowed him to contribute directly and immediately to projects he was assigned.
The federal government, most notably through the Environmental Protection Agency, is more aggressively regulating stormwater runoff and erosion controls. As civil engineers and developers know, unmanaged stormwater can cause erosion and flooding. It also can carry excess nutrients, sediment, and other contaminants into rivers and streams, resulting in higher pollution levels that impact nearby land and water systems. New regulatory regimes to control stormwater and erosion can be burdensome for localities to enforce and are a top challenge for new developments. As these regulations evolve, it’s critical that those professionals who design sites for development manage stormwater and erosion controls.
Programs that focus on land development provide courses on these evolving regulations and best practices for stormwater, erosion control, brownfields, and other environmental concerns. These issues are complex and preparing the next generation of engineers and developers is paramount. Not only can universities deliver the educational background needed, but they can help develop new insights and solutions. For example, the Virginia Tech LDDI program has worked with several localities in Virginia, conducting research related to stormwater controls and mitigation. These projects give students real-world experience and benefit the communities at the same time.
Reduce the labor shortage
The labor shortage in the engineering and land development fields has been well established across the country. The need for new and qualified engineers who understand land development rises every year. Not surprisingly, residential land development positons dropped off with the housing crisis, but the positions haven’t been fully refilled as the housing sector recovered. Likewise, businesses in commercial and industrial development face an ongoing labor shortage.
Of course, there are a number of factors that play into this shortage. However, one primary component has been that civil engineering schools didn’t typically offer land development course work. Thus, students were unprepared for available positions. This is one of the reasons that the LDDI program was created. By educating students about land development, they can begin to meet the needs of this industry.
Just how critical is it to address the labor shortage?
Gary Bowman, founder and president of Bowman Consulting, noted that as one of the fastest growing engineering firms in the country, it’s vital that they have a robust pipeline for talent from college campuses. More than half of the new graduates that Bowman hires come from LDDI. Bowman believes that the program offers long-term and tangible benefits to his firm and the students. This example is not intended to pound LDDI’s proverbial chest. Rather, it highlights the immense need for more engineering students who understand land development and design.
These three benefits showcase the value of a partnership between an academic institution and the land development community. Both the school and private sector gain from this partnership. In return, those private businesses help educate the next generation of professionals and offer valuable financial support for the program. It’s important to note that LDDI is funded by the land development and engineering community in Virginia. Only by raising funds from the private sector and leveraging that support through the university can the program continue to thrive.
LDDI remains the only program of its kind in the country, although a handful of universities are considering similar approaches. Establishing dedicated courses in land development and design while simultaneously partnering with engineering firms and developers is an innovative solution that will prepare the next generation of professionals and help advance the engineering and land development disciplines.
Randel Dymond, Ph.D., P.E., is the LDDI coordinator at Virginia Tech. He developed and has managed the program since its inception. He also serves as an associate professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering in the university’s Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Lighthiser, P.E., is the president and CEO of Draper Aden Associates, an engineering, surveying, and environmental services firm based in Virginia. He has previously served as the LDDI Advisory Board chair and can be contacted at email@example.com