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UNITS Magazine: Building a diverse, next generation property management workforce

Urban Alliance Greater DC Executive Director Monique Rizer published the following piece for the National Apartment Association:

Urban Alliance is providing job skills training, mentoring and paid internships to high school youth from under-resourced communities, predominantly youth of color, to help expand the talent pipeline for the residential property management industry.

Daykia Moore-Brawley, a Property Manager with Gates Hudson, never thought about a career in the property management industry until she was exposed to it through a family member. She quickly discovered a new passion and has spent the last decade in property management.

Now, she is providing the same exposure to her high school intern Tracey Montilus through a new program, the Urban Alliance Property Management Pathway. Created in partnership with the Pension Real Estate Association (PREA) Foundation, Urban Alliance’s new program seeks to bridge the gap between open jobs in the real estate industry and young, diverse talent in local communities by introducing high school students of color to careers in property management.

Meeting the Moment

More than a year after the death of George Floyd, companies around the country are grappling with how to create meaningful, lasting change to build a more equitable and diverse workforce – including the residential real estate industry.

“The real estate community currently lacks established networks and know-how for finding and training young diverse youth to access careers in the industry,” said Ivan Barron, Executive Director of the PREA Foundation.

Additionally, the industry has struggled to develop a stable pipeline of qualified entry-level workers, with consistently high turnover rates among key entry-level and junior roles, averaging around 30% for leasing agents and 40% for maintenance technicians, according to CEL & Associates.

At the same time, communities of color were the hardest hit by the health care and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, according to youth.gov and Measure of America, youth of color experienced the highest unemployment and disconnection rate (lack of participation in both work and school) of any other age group during the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, youth of color experienced far higher unemployment rates than their white peers due to systemic barriers erected before they even have the chance to join the workforce – and before many employers even begin to think about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. In addition to continued racial discrimination in the hiring process, youth of color face an economic opportunity gap exacerbated by lack of access to the exposure, connections and training needed to connect to living-wage, economically mobile employment.

Efforts to build a more equitable workforce are not reaching the talented young men and women of color who need that first door opened to bridge the opportunity gap.

Seizing the Opportunity

National nonprofit Urban Alliance has a long history of fighting for equity by providing high school youth from historically underserved communities with access to the tools needed to become economically self-sufficient while enabling employers to build strong pipelines of diverse talent. Since 1996, Urban Alliance has provided more than 6,000 youth with paid internships, job skills training and mentoring, ensuring that they leave the program on a pathway to economic mobility, whether that is college, a career or vocational training.

In recent years, as the cost of college continues to balloon and youth of color shoulder the largest student loan debt burden of any demographic group, Urban Alliance recognized that an increasingly larger number of students are opting to enter the workforce directly after graduation. Exploring ways to better connect students to jobs with strong career ladders, it saw an opportunity within the real estate industry.

With a high concentration of junior-level positions with low barriers to entry that can turn into upwardly mobile, lifelong careers, the residential real estate industry was perfectly positioned for Urban Alliance to pilot an industry-based pathway for students planning to matriculate straight to work. Additionally, the industry presents an appealingly steady career path in a time of economic uncertainty; as Gates Hudson intern Montilus noted, “Everybody always needs a home.”

“There’s always a job for maintenance, just like there’s always a job for a teacher and nurses,” said Wency Coleman, Vice President of Human Resources at Horning Brothers, one of Urban Alliance’s inaugural partners in this new program. “It’s a very stable career.”

“They made a great decision and have started to rollout what I hope will be a long relationship between the organization and the industry,” said Kelly Avery, Associate Professor of Practice in Property Management at Virginia Tech. Avery was an early thought partner as Urban Alliance crafted this new program, advising on curriculum and connecting the dots with other organizations, including members of their own board who ended up hiring interns.

Putting it All Together

After critical early investments from the Diane & Norman Bernstein Foundation and the PREA Foundation, Urban Alliance officially launched the Property Management Pathway with a pilot group of 30-plus students from 11 schools and 18 employer partners in Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and southern Maryland – in the middle of a pandemic.

Explained Dawnita Wilson, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at JBG Smith, about her company’s decision to partner with Urban Alliance: “We realized that if we truly want to prepare students for careers in real estate, we need to start much earlier in the pipeline. The Urban Alliance Property Management Pathway program… also encouraged us to think more strategically about our future workforce planning efforts. The more that we can provide young people with access to careers in real estate, the more we are able to diversify the industry. And when we diversify the industry, we all win.”

In fall 2020, students began Urban Alliance’s proprietary soft skills training curriculum, 11 weeks of learning the fundamentals needed to succeed in any workplace (doubled in length from the usual six weeks due to the pandemic and the need to train virtually). Students then split into two tracks: two-thirds in leasing and one-third in maintenance. Leasing students completed 20 hours of training toward earning their Certified Apartment Leasing Professional (CALP) credential including modules on customer service, fair housing, marketing and sales, and lease preparation, while maintenance students embarked on 80 hours of training toward earning the Certificate for Apartment Maintenance Technicians (CAMT) credential, including electrical, HVAC, appliance and other repairs and environmental responsibility and regulatory compliance – both credentials developed by the National Apartment Association.

As training wrapped up, students began paid remote, in-person or hybrid internships with residential real estate companies in the Greater D.C. region, including the Bernstein Management Corporation, Bozzuto Group, Gates Hudson, Greystar and more. During the school year, students worked 12 hours per week Monday through Thursday, and, following graduation, began working full-time Monday through Thursday for 32 hours per week. On Fridays, students gather virtually as a cohort for additional job and life skills training including digital and financial literacy.

At their job sites, each student is matched with a supervisor—a mentor—who guides their personal and professional growth. Mentors are a critical part of the student’s success; these one-on-one relationships are the sweet spot where students learn valuable on-the-job skills and, more importantly, a sense of belonging in the workplace that increases their professional confidence and helps them to dream a
little bigger.

“Teenagers have a hard-enough time growing up between social unrest, the pandemic and typical stressors of becoming an adult,” says Russell L. Outtrim, Assistant Vice President at the Bernstein Management Corporation. “Offering them a chance to learn from capable and talented team members increases their chances of being successful in life.”

The program culminates in a summer job fair with partnering companies so students can connect to open jobs within their community, as well as a “Public Speaking Challenge,” Urban Alliance’s traditional culminating celebration in which students share what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown over the course of the program while honing skills in a mock interview setting.

Making an Impact

For both interns and mentors, the Property Management Pathway’s pilot year has been a success.

For Jarell Clarke, who interns with Bell Partners and is a career and technical education student in high school who studied plumbing and plans to go into the maintenance field, this program has given him the real-world experience he needed to feel confident in his future career. “I had seen videos of it, I learned about it in class, but I never got the hands-on experience,” he said of his work on the property. “I felt, after all, I can do this.”

For others like Saron Kabede at JBG Smith, this program introduced them to an industry they had never previously considered. Now, she is excited to earn her CALP credential so she can work as a leasing consultant while in college.

“I love the place that I work at right now,” said Kabede. “I like how it’s hectic, and it changes, and it’s a new thing every day. [Residents] have different problems to bring and you have to get creative to solve their problems… If I get the chance, I would like to work as a leasing consultant.”

“We believe this program effectively identifies students, provides an infrastructure for learning valuable workplace skills, and connects high school students to meaningful opportunities with businesses in their community,” said Kelly Lynch, Executive Director of the Diane & Norman Bernstein Foundation. “In my view, a win for all.”

In addition to building a more diverse pipeline of qualified candidates, companies also saw immediate benefits in employee morale. “They have given our mentors and other team members a new purpose by allowing them to share the many skills and experiences they have,” said Outtrim. “Our team members working with the interns have expressed their happiness and gratitude in having the opportunity to help shape and guide these wonderful interns.”

For Moore-Brawley, mentor to intern Montilus at Gates Hudson, “It has been a pleasure,” she said. “She really has hit the ground running… Always shows up on time, eager to work… This is a brilliant

Like Kabede, Montilus had never considered a career in property management, but now wants to become a leasing consultant while earning her degree at Morgan State University.

“This program is really teaching me where my future is going to align,” she said. “It’s teaching me everything I feel like I need to progress and everything I will need in the future to succeed… Honestly, I don’t know where I would be if I was not in this program, so I really hope that this program expands.”

Expanding the Opportunity

In fact, Urban Alliance plans to double the number of students served in the second year of this three-year pilot program, expanding both within the Greater D.C. region as well as into Chicago, and potentially exploring an expansion into commercial real estate.

“Real estate companies who are serious about finding talent in residential maintenance and leasing should explore the Property Management Pathway,” said Barron of the PREA Foundation. “This is an innovative approach for real estate companies to identify untapped pools of talent and to simultaneously further the important work of creating a more diverse and inclusive industry.”

Join us.

Monique Rizer is the Executive Director of Urban Alliance in the Greater D.C. region. To learn more about the Property Management Pathway or to learn how to host interns in your city, contact Urban Alliance at info@theurbanalliance.org.