ECU construction management graduates are shaping the region

Will Janning watches as a seagull flies across a clear sky. The nearby water greets the sand he stands on, allowing him a dry spot from where he can see more than two years of his work in front of him. The 45-foot-tall bridge stretches more than half a mile across The Straits, a waterway that separates Harkers Island from mainland Carteret County. From the top, you can spot the Cape Lookout Lighthouse staring back at you as it keeps watch over 20 miles of blue ocean.

“It’s awesome,” said Janning, who works as a project engineer for Balfour Beatty, an international construction company that is building the new Harkers Island bridge. “It’s definitely a great place to work, and my coworkers and I cherish every minute we have out here because we know it’s not going to last forever. Working on the coast of North Carolina is definitely a pretty proud feeling.”

Janning is among a growing contingent of East Carolina University construction management graduates who have turned their degrees into high-paying and rewarding careers that are literally shaping the region.

“It basically set the foundation for my career,” Janning said of his ECU education. “The skills we learned in school, I’m applying them here day in and day out. Different tools like Primavera P6, which is a scheduling software, and Autodesk AutoCAD, we use those technologies every single day out here on the jobsite. Without my degree, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Where he is today is coastal Carteret County, roughly two hours from ECU’s campus. Janning has been a part of the Harkers Island bridge project since it began in 2021, helping write and execute contracts and then serving as a member of the on-site management team for the span that will open in a matter of months.

“I like to use the phrase that I keep the light green for all the operations out there in the field,” Janning said. “If there’s ever a problem that comes up, I’ll get with our team, we’ll come up with a plan, a way to mitigate any issues.”

As if building a 3,200-foot bridge across open water isn’t difficult enough, this span is particularly unique. It is the first in North Carolina to be constructed with carbon fiber reinforced polymer strands instead of steel rebar. The design means the bridge should withstand the corroding coastal environment better than traditionally built bridges such as the one it’s replacing.

The current bridge to Harkers Island is about 50 years old. The new bridge is expected to last 200 years, putting Janning at the forefront of what could become the future of bridge construction in the state.

Janning credits the foundation he received at ECU for paving the way for his opportunity at Balfour Beatty. To give back, he represented Balfour Beatty at this fall’s engineering and technology career fair, recruiting future Pirate graduates and talking to them about his job.

“The ECU construction management department is just phenomenal,” he said. “They definitely set you up for success, whatever that may be. … The opportunities are endless, and ECU does a really good job of setting their students up for those opportunities.”

Paving the Way

An internship — part of the construction management degree requirements — paved the road to success for Ryan Hoggard.

The 2023 ECU graduate had accepted a job as an asphalt plant foreman for Barnhill Contracting Company in Williamston a month before he donned his cap and gown for commencement.

Ryan Hoggard graduated from ECU in the spring with a construction management degree and is already an asphalt plant foreman for Barnhill Contracting Company. (Photo by Ken Buday)

Ryan Hoggard graduated from ECU in the spring with a construction management degree and is already an asphalt plant foreman for Barnhill Contracting Company. (Photo by Ken Buday)

“I don’t think I’d be at Barnhill if I hadn’t done my internship here,” said Hoggard, who grew up in Windsor, about an hour north of ECU’s campus.

In the plant’s control tower, Hoggard must regulate the mixture and temperature of the asphalt as it is created. Changing weather conditions affect his work and the plant, which can produce 2,000 tons of asphalt a day, enough to pave roughly four miles of road.

He said he appreciates the family-oriented company and enjoys knowing that the work he does is helping to shape the future of the state.

“It’s making the roads safer for everybody, making all of North Carolina accessible,” Hoggard said. “You don’t have just us driving the roads every day. You have people traveling through the state, and you have big trucks bringing us our fuel and bringing us our food. The roads are very, very important, not just for us but for infrastructure.”

He said the courses he took at ECU pay off daily in his work at Barnhill.

“They definitely instilled time management skills in me and critical thinking skills,” Hoggard said. “That’s pretty much what management is out here is time management and critical thinking because when something goes wrong, how do you fix it and how is it going to affect operations.”

The health care industry initially attracted Hoggard when he entered college. But he grew up digging in the dirt as a boy and always had an interest in architecture and how things are built. He switched majors to construction management and is already training to be a plant superintendent. He certainly sees the value in his construction management degree.

“It’s very worth it,” he said. “Obviously, you can’t put a price on having that piece of paper. It really takes a weight off your shoulders.”

Out in the Field

Mauricio Reyes Ricardez never gets bored with his work.

“I enjoy working in construction and being out in the field because it offers a dynamic and ever-changing environment,” said Reyes Ricardez, a 2022 construction management graduate and current field engineer for Lithko Contracting. “Each day brings a fresh set of challenges, and no two job sites are the same, making the work both exciting and engaging. Being on site allows me to witness the tangible results of our efforts and see projects come to life. Moreover, the camaraderie and teamwork in the field are incredibly fulfilling, as we collaborate to overcome obstacles and deliver high-quality results. This hands-on aspect of construction is what keeps me passionate about my work.”

Mauricio Reyes Ricardez, a 2022 ECU graduate, works as a field engineer for Lithko Contracting on a 579,000-square-foot warehouse project in Graham. (Contributed photo)

Mauricio Reyes Ricardez, a 2022 ECU graduate, works as a field engineer for Lithko Contracting on a 579,000-square-foot warehouse project in Graham. (Contributed photo)

The hands-on experience in the construction management program is what drew him to ECU.

“My affinity for hands-on activities, such as laboratory work, aligns with the features of the program,” he said. “ECU’s tradition of school spirit reinforced my decision.”

He said he had plenty of support at ECU from his fraternity brothers at Beta Theta Pi as well from his mother, Alejandra Ricardez, father, Joaquin Reyes, and the rest of his family.

“Without them, none of my accomplishments would be possible,” he said.

Less than a year after graduation, Reyes Ricardez received his first solo assignment as a field engineer. He is overseeing the line and grade of an industrial project that includes a 579,000-square-foot warehouse in Graham. Essentially, he is mapping out the project using advanced instrumentation and ensuring its accuracy based on the architectural and structural drawings. But he sees a bigger picture.

“By efficiently managing construction projects, I help create and improve infrastructure, stimulate economic growth and enhance the quality of life for the local community,” he said.

He returned to Greenville to help Lithko recruit the next generation of Pirate builders during the September career fair.

“I could actively contribute to the development and success of future graduates, offering them valuable insights into the industry and potential career opportunities,” Reyes Ricardez said. “Additionally, it allowed me to give back to my alma mater and strengthen the connection between Lithko and ECU, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Building Careers

As a teaching assistant professor in ECU’s Department of Construction Management, Dr. Jodi Farrington keeps an eye on the construction job market.

“Right now, it looks really strong,” she said. “Building starts are good. Housing starts are a little iffy, but the bill on infrastructure just passed, and all that falls under construction management. … Construction in general is very cyclical. We had that recession from 2008 to 2010, but it’s come back strong from that, and it just hasn’t stopped.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for construction managers is around $101,000, and the industry expects nearly 5% job growth through 2027. Farrington said the industry recognizes the importance of construction managers.

“The industry went without construction managers for a number of years, but by implementing construction managers, there is a reliable link between the owner and the general contractors,” she said. “There is someone on site who knows construction and can be the eyes and ears of the owner. They’ll make sure that the contractors get the changes from the owner and the money so they get paid on time, and they’ll make sure the contractors are using all the proper materials and the proper techniques for a safe and quality project.”

ECU owns the oldest construction management program in the state, one with accreditation from the American Council for Construction Education. Yet still, Farrington said many don’t understand the program’s mission.

“We’re not teaching them to pound the nails and do the work,” she said. “We’re teaching our students how to manage the work.”

And there’s plenty of work. Farrington said ECU construction management graduates often receive multiple job offers, with a job placement rate of nearly 100% for each graduating class.

Ava Jones gets it. The freshman from Raleigh came to ECU to major in construction management because she sees an industry that pays well and will never go away.

“We’ve been building things since the beginning of time,” Jones said. “We’re always going to be building things.”

Will Janning, right, discusses work with Andrew Wright at the Harkers Island bridge replacement project. Janning has been part of the project since it started in 2021, helping write and execute contracts and working as a member of the on-site management team. (Photo by Rhett Butler)