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Concrete Goes to College - 2002-01-20

Mix sand, and water, and powdered stone called "cement," and what do you get? As humans have known since the Roman Empire, you get concrete. In the United States alone, concrete work accounts for one-third of the $250 billion construction industry. A university in the southern state of Tennessee is mixing sand, water, cement, and four full years of classes and producing the world's first college degree in "concrete management"

Like plumbing, hairdressing, and carpentry, pouring concrete is blue-collar work. But Middle Tennessee State University, in the little city of Murfreesboro near the state capital of Nashville, offers a full, four-year concrete curriculum.

The program began in 1996 with just two students. Now there are about one hundred. Twenty young people have already graduated from the program and have well-paying jobs in the concrete industry.

Austin Cheney, a mechanical engineer by training, heads the program at Middle Tennessee State. He says like many industries, the concrete business is changing rapidly as big companies buy out small, family-owned operations. "Large corporations, they want to hire educated people to be their managers, and it changes the way the industry does business," he says. "They saw a need to be able to hire people right out of college that had a background and understanding of the technical side of the product, as well as the business side of the industry. That's really what drove the need for this program."

But is concrete complex enough a subject to justify a four-year college program?

"We're not talking about just sidewalks here," says Mr. Cheney. "We're talking about high-rise buildings. We're talking about bridges. The product is getting more and more complicated all the time with both chemical admixtures and mineral admixtures that are added to change the properties to meet the requirements of a given situation. The other thing is, the people have to have a business background as well."

One of Austin Cheney's students is Ben Petzinger, from the western state of Idaho. He has worked as a construction laborer but has his sights set on a lucrative management career.

Petzinger: "We're light years ahead of any other program that offers any training in concrete."
Landphair: "Do you ever get any teasing from your fellow students about your curriculum, compared with philosophy and history?"
Petzinger: "I think there's a misnomer [a false impression] out there that if you study a material like concrete, it's almost a vocational-tech kind of a thing. Concrete's the most widely used building product in the world, and it's an industry that's a very well-kept secret. However, everybody depends on it. It's fine with me if anybody teases me about learning about concrete. I simply come back with the joke, 'What's the difference between a history major [a person who studies history in college] and a large pizza?' A large pizza can feed a family of four."

In other words, people who can combine the prestige of a college degree with the practical value of a construction skill can make a fine living. It's a message that's encouraged by the concrete industry, which helped set up the Middle Tennessee State University program and has spent about $1 million supporting it.

Robert Garbini is president of the National Ready-Mix Concrete Association. Ready-mix concrete is the kind of fresh, wet, gray combination of ingredients you see tumbling in what are commonly called "cement mixers," as opposed to pre-cast pieces of concrete put together in factories and shipped to a job site. "Heretofore, we've not had individuals in our field who have come out with a business degree related to concrete. It has given individuals who are looking for a career another option," he says. "And they look at it, and they say, 'Well, you know, I don't need to be a tech-o [technical wizard]. If I want to be in business, I can be in business. There's a lot of opportunities there, and this is one way to get into it."

Instructor Cheney says that in addition to courses in mathematics, chemistry, and business, students in the concrete-management program take nine courses just about concrete - how to cure it, strengthen it, and make it tolerant of extreme cold or extreme heat. Students even learn how to decorate in concrete. "They can make counter tops that are just beautiful, that look like marble," he says. "They can make concrete look like stone, brick. They can stamp and color it and just do some amazing things architecturally."

Austin Cheney points out that while his students are not spending four years in college to learn to be blue-collar laborers, they do get their hands dirty, both in the laboratory and on construction sites, where they literally get the feel of various types of concrete. "We're not in our little ivory tower," he says. But he admits his students do build a few walls between academia and the real world. They're made of good-old reliable concrete.