COMPANIES ARE increasingly looking for staff with specialist MBAs. Far from merely being a qualification to show how bright a candidate is, an MBA is an important tool to help executives improve their performance. One such course is the University of Reading MBA in Construction & Real Estate. The programme is offered by the College of Estate Management in Britain through Hong Kong Polytechnic University's online arm, HKCyberU. The programme started in 1994 and specialises in enhancing management skills in the construction and property fields. The focus is on high-level corporate business administration. Roger Waterhouse, a consultant for International and Business Studies at the College of Estate Management, said: 'The industry is ever changing. There are bigger, more complicated projects, especially with regards to financing vehicles such as reits. Construction methods are becoming more prefabricated with ever-increasing sizes of projects, [and] joint ventures, public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives [are] being used more widely.' To this end, the course content is constantly updated to meet new issues that affect the industry. 'New trends which have been incorporated into the study material include global environmental issues and sustainable development, reits investment vehicles and international business and political ethics,' Mr Waterhouse said. Students are typically surveyors, architects, construction managers, developers, solicitors and accountants involved in developments. Almost all are from middle to senior management, with three to 30 years of experience. This is a distance learning programme and studies are mainly Web-based. But students also receive learning material and there are face-to-face workshops held twice a year at Polytechnic University. Mr Waterhouse said students doing the course studied at least 15 hours a week, which people with busy jobs and home lives could generally manage. He said that aside from gaining professional recognition from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Chartered Institute of Building, students started to benefit soon after enrolling in the course. 'They quickly learn to understand accounting procedures. They adopt good practice in selecting efficient teams ... leadership has a particular place on the programme, together with introducing change as painlessly as possible,' he said. Many graduates were promoted within their own organisations, some even before they completed the course; some left for higher positions on completion, while others started their own companies. 'Just undertaking the course has a beneficial impact on the perception of each candidate,' he said. Mr Waterhouse said many more graduates would move to China in the next five years. 'They will follow the jobs and as salaries increase in China so will the attractiveness of the job opportunities.' Polytechnic University also offers a Master of Science/Postgraduate Diploma in Construction and Real Estate. Designed to meet the work commitments and individual needs of professionals, this part-time course was launched in 1995 and aims to deepen knowledge of those in the construction and real estate industry. Paul Fox, Building and Real Estate Department assistant professor at Polytechnic University, said: 'We have a wide variety of students from the government and private sectors, students from other departments in the faculty and undergraduates returning to us who are attracted to the broad-based nature of our course, which covers economics, management and law.' Mr Fox said more students were coming from the mainland to do the construction and real estate course. He said the trend would be for people to start looking for work on the mainland and he was upbeat about the future of the industry, despite the severe effects that the economic downturn had on it. 'The market has been surprisingly resilient and there is an increasing number of jobs, especially in architecture and design, which will feed through to the construction and property industry,' he said. On average, students attend one class a week in the evenings over two 14-week semesters. The main areas of study are construction management, real estate development and property asset management. They must also do a dissertation. The course takes two to three years. Another distance learning course is Construction Management by Distance Learning, offered in association with the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU Space), which leads to a master's degree from the University of Bath - one of Britain's top universities. Associate professor at HKU Space, Evia Wong, said the course had been running since 1991 and the lecturers, many of whom had been there for the long term, were professors, doctors and academics from Hong Kong and Britain, including the University of Bath. Dubbed 'the MBA for the construction industry', this course focuses on developing the skills of managers in the property and construction fields using various techniques to help them cope with problems they face at work. Subjects include management in construction, economics in construction, construction law, managing human resources, pre-contract management and strategy in construction. The course takes three years and includes a dissertation. 'Most of our students have been at senior management level for a long time, but some are more junior and are struggling for job stability and seeking better employment prospects,' Dr Wong said.