Course Correction: In an Ever-Changing Landscape, Associations Strive to Keep Education Fresh

Associations need to keep pace with their constituencies’ ever-evolving needs, and to meet those demands, groups are looking at new communication channels, re-examining their programs and rolling out new offerings.

A couple of years ago, the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts got some surprising feedback from attendees at REITWise, its long-running annual symposium on legal, financial and accounting trends. Held during March in sun-drenched locations like Florida and Southern California, REITWise had customarily combined specialized sessions in the morning with golf, tennis and sightseeing in the afternoon.

That changed, however, after a number of participants conveyed a gripe. As they saw it, the problem was not the education but the relaxation. “They said, ‘Let’s have more program and less fun activity,’” recalled George Yungmann, NAREIT’s senior vice president for financial standards. The organizers willingly complied, and at the following year’s event, swapped recreational outings for additional class time.

Besides illustrating real estate professionals’ appetite for knowledge, the incident hints at the challenges faced by associations as they try to keep pace with their constituencies’ ever-evolving needs. The industry counts on its diverse specialty organizations to serve as a collective University of Real Estate, complementing undergraduate and graduate programs as well as in-house company training.

Each year, thousands of attendees of all experience levels and professional specialties sit in a classroom or at a computer to participate in association-sponsored programs. Their agendas range from learning the basics to earning professional certification. Meeting the needs of this diverse constituency is an ever-changing task. Technology, regulatory policies, economic trends and generational preferences must all figure into decisions about the curriculum, explained Rob Nahigian, principal with Newton, Mass.-based Auburndale Realty Co.

Nahigian brings the perspectives of a well-traveled participant—he attends four national industry conferences each year—as well as those of a teacher and an association board member. Among other activities, he has chaired the national education committee for the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, teaches at Boston University and serves on national committees for the Counselors of Real Estate. Nahigian pointed out that even the deceptively simple task of scheduling educational sessions can give planners headaches, since attendees are often interested in sessions that run at the same time. “You can’t make 100 percent of the people happy 100 percent of the time,” asserted Nahigian. “The reality is that everyone has a different need.”

Associations are also striving to adapt to the new paradigms brought about by the technological revolution. There is undoubtedly a generation gap of sorts, even though many Baby Boomers embrace online education and twenty-something professionals often flock to traditional classroom settings. Nevertheless, Nahigian argued that real estate groups have plenty of catching up to do, particularly with younger professionals. In the long run, he predicted, “there will be a merger of both” traditional classroom sessions and online offerings.

Associations may have ground to make up, but they have nonetheless embraced the new digital channels. Webinars allow associations to reach small, geographically far-flung audiences for which a traditional in-person event would be impractical. Given the lead time usually required to determine subject matter and line up faculty for live events, webinars also enable organizations to keep their educational offerings current, with fewer logistical complications.

Changing Channels

As they experiment to make the best of new and old tools, associations report subtle changes. “We’ve seen a greater interest in online (learning), particularly self-paced,” reported Jeff Schummer, vice president for education at the Mortgage Bankers Association. “These are very popular and in high demand.”

Others agree. “In 2011 … we had an unexpected shift” from interactive webinars to self-paced online instruction, reported Joe Greenblatt, president of San Diego-based Sunrise Management. “It wasn’t necessarily a decline in overall demand, it was a shift in channels,” added Greenblatt, who is currently serving as the Institute of Real Estate Management’s secretary-treasurer. He points to the flexibility of self-guided learning as the primary reason for its growing popularity.

Though technology is a game-changer for association educational programs, it is hardly the only influence. Keeping pace with heightened state licensing requirements is another priority. “The big backdrop for the educational needs of our members is that requirements for state licensing in all categories seem to be going up,” explained Del Kendall, managing director at the Real Estate Research Corp. and head of the education committee for the Counselors of Real Estate. He cites the case of Texas, where the coursework required for a real estate appraisal license has doubled in the past few years from 180 to 360 hours.

The learning channels provided by professional groups are only possible because of the faculty, content advice and financial support provided by real estate companies themselves. Despite that strong support, program organizers see room for improvement. Signing up top professionals for teaching assignments is a constant challenge. While recruiting experts for this year’s REITWise, Yungmann reached out to the director of financial reporting for a large REIT and invited him to lead a roundtable. To Yungmann’s frustration, the executive turned him down. “I wonder how his COO felt about that,” Yungmann said. He contends that teaching at events sponsored by industry groups is not merely an opportunity for exposure but a responsibility.

Much like the nation’s colleges, professional associations rarely institute wholesale change to programs; courses are shaped by member feedback, economic trends and licensing requirements. Still, educational programs are necessarily works in progress, and their continuing evolution can shed light on the changing needs of the industry.

As regulations, economic trends and financial markets all remain fluid, associations are challenged to stay up to speed. “Developing timely, targeted, accessible and relevant learning programs is a moving target and a tall order,” said Suzanne Verity, vice president of education for CoreNet Global.

As a result, many groups are re-examining their programs and rolling out new offerings. This year, CoreNet is adding a “live and in-person version” of its CoRE Fundamentals course, which currently offers online training in corporate real estate basics. An accelerated version of the organization’s 30-year-old Master of Corporate Real Estate program will be tailored to those working in rapidly emerging new markets like China and India. In another twist on the MCR designation, CoreNet is adding a workplace-focused specialization.

A few years ago, the Institute of Real Estate Management concluded that there was a significant category missing from its menu of specialized finance and building operations courses.

To fill the gap, IREM introduced a course exploring leadership and management strategies, explained Greenblatt, who helped develop the seminar while serving as the group’s volunteer senior vice president for educational programs. Topics will include approaches to leadership, organizational structure, ethics, mentoring and communication—all covered with reference to issues encountered by real estate managers.

This September, the International Council of Shopping Centers will introduce a seminar on net operating income in Orlando. Details are still in the works, but the course will deal with different strategies related to improving revenue and controlling expenses, said Judy Wander, vice president & director of education. This month, the Mortgage Bankers Association is scheduled to unveil a new certification program that will provide advanced training in the financial, legal and administrative techniques in investment.

On another front, the MBA is studying a proposal for a certification program in multi-family underwriting. “There’s been an increase in the volume of multi-family loans going through the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” explained Jeff Schummer, its vice president for education.