The assistant project manager leaned back in a chair in his company’s job trailer, and his face broke into a grin.
It felt good to rest a bit after a long week of dealing with a muddy construction site following more than 5 inches of rain in Hays. He glanced at the masons erecting the stair towers for Fort Hays State University’s new 450-bed, four-story, 110,748 square-foot Wiest Hall while talking about the differences between construction labor and construction management.
D.J. Brown, a white hard hat atop his head and an auburn stubble gracing his youthful face, looked more like a college student working at an internship than one in charge of a multi-million dollar project.
Brown happens to be both.
The 24-year-old Plainville native is fulfilling his internship requirements for his bachelor’s degree in construction management from Fort Hays State. He will graduate next month, and like a lot of seniors, he was offered a job even before graduation.
Unlike most, however, Brown has been working full time for McPherson Contractors Inc. out of Topeka for four months during his final semester of college.
Such are the benefits of students in FHSU’s construction management program, in its fourth year in the university’s Department of Applied Technology.
Courses were added to the construction technology curriculum in 2012 for students to complete the degree with a construction management emphasis.
“We’ve always had students who graduated in construction technology, went out and got a job and grew into a construction manager,” said Kim Stewart, chair of the Department of Applied Technology.
“But,” he added, “we needed something about management that high school counselors and teachers could identify with, so we created a hybrid.”
The new program caught on rapidly.
“We started with the typical five students the first year, then 12, 18, and it keeps doubling itself,” said Kris Munsch, assistant professor of applied technology. “We have 30-plus in the program now.”
Until recently, the only four-year institutions in Kansas offering a construction management program were Kansas State University and Pittsburg State University.
All of a sudden, students from Kansas and area states realized there’s now another option — a more affordable one at that. One of those students was Brown.
Not only does Fort Hays State offer top-notch instruction and hands-on experience, it also has the most affordable tuition of any four-year school in the Kansas Regents system. For Brown, FHSU is only half an hour from his hometown.
The Applied Technology Department has benefitted from the addition of the construction management program.
“Now, it’s not just internships for seniors that companies want, but they are wanting them as freshmen,” Munsch said. “That field is just exploding. It’s really booming.
“By the time those students are seniors,” Munsch added, “they’re ready to manage a 5-, 10-, 15-million-dollar job in their early 20s, which is mind boggling.”
That’s the situation already facing Brown, who grew up around construction but was most familiar with electrical technology, working alongside his dad, Blaine Brown, an electrician in Plainville.
After a couple of years of college majoring in health and human performance, then a couple more out in the work force, D.J. Brown decided to return to college and major in business management.
“I was thinking I wanted to own my dad’s business some day,” the younger Brown said of switching majors.
However, Brown was drawn to construction technology and liked the classes added to the program’s original curriculum, so he chose the construction management route.
“They were teaching us how to run our own business, and I liked that,” he said. “The management classes were more in-depth, gave more detail of things I never even thought of before. The fitting together of construction and management all started to make sense.”
Brown said he gained invaluable on-the-job experience during an internship last summer with Deines Construction out of WaKeeney.
“I hadn’t had that type of hands-on experience in that type of construction before,” said Brown, who was exposed to a variety of construction projects — both residential and commercial that ranged from designing buildings to pouring concrete to building wheelchair ramps. He designed some of his own projects and also worked under an architect.
“The two to three months working last summer, I learned so much,” he said.
When it came time to look for a senior internship last fall, Brown sought out McPherson Construction because his cousin is married to the mason who works on a lot of that company’s jobs.
“I set up an interview, got the internship,” Brown said, “and things started to happen in a hurry.”
Brown left for Topeka and began his internship in mid-December.
Coincidentally, McPherson Construction was bidding on the Wiest Hall replacement project at the time. Steve Kesl, senior project superintendent for McPherson, said that Brown was a big help in landing the Wiest Hall job in early January.
“He was instrumental in working the figures and helping our estimator with information,” Kesl said. “The fact that he knows the community and knew a lot of the sub-contractors has been a real help to me. It’s been a learning process for us together. So we asked him if he wanted to go back to Hays and help build Wiest.”
Brown didn’t hesitate to say “Yes.” Kesl said his company was so impressed with Brown’s work ethic and quality of work that they hired him full time Feb. 1.
“D.J. is a doer,” Kesl said. “He likes to make sure he gets his things done.
“He’s of the electronic age, so he works with AutoCAD really well,” Kesl said of computer software application used for design and drafting.
Brown admits he has had to improvise in getting things done as a planner and scheduler rather than a laborer.
“I’m not afraid of hard work, so I miss pushing the shovel sometimes,” he said. “But I like paperwork and behind-the-scenes stuff, too. It’s great to know both sides.”
“It’s such a golden opportunity,” said Kesl, who has worked for McPherson Construction for 27 years. “… for both parties.”
“It’s unbelievable what he’s learning,” Stewart agreed.
Those golden opportunities have not been lost on Brown.
“I want to own a business some day, but I don’t know how,” he said. “But when I get going on something, I’m goal oriented. If I want to get better at something, I just keep trying until I get it right, so I’ll learn how.”
Brown is excited to see the Wiest replacement project — which includes a new three-story Themed Housing building and expansion of the McMindes Hall dining area — through to completion in the summer of 2017. At the same time, he gets to watch FHSU’s construction management program continue to thrive.
“Every year, Fort Hays State has just gotten better and better,” he said. “Students coming through this program the next few years are going to do amazing things.”
Brown paused and looked thoughtful. He realizes it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time for him, and he plans to make the most of it.
“I don’t believe in coincidences, though,” he said. “I believe it was supposed to happen this way.”
While Brown looks and sounds like a 24-year-old about to graduate from college, he speaks with a wisdom beyond his years.
“Instead of working for a paycheck, I’m working to learn,” Brown said. “I want to learn something new every day.”
D.J. is the son of Blaine and Amy Brown of Planville.