Aiming to elevate construction education

The PENTA Building Group Professorship will boost students’ career opportunities through stronger alumni and industry connections

Above: Associate Professor Jim Ernzen’s key responsibility in a new endowed professorship role in the Del E. Webb School of Construction is to enrich undergraduates’ educational experience by strengthening their connections to the school’s alumni and other industry leaders. Photographer: Tim Trumble

Jim Ernzen found his professional passion more than 23 years ago when he began teaching construction management at Arizona State University.

What he realized even then is how much learning students need beyond classroom instruction to get a complete education and a solid jump-start on their careers.

Especially vital to students’ success, Ernzen says, are mentorships, internships to get first-hand job experience, research training and connections to leaders in the industry.

Personal commitment and financial backing by benefactors outside the university are critical to providing students those opportunities. But attracting such support requires focused relationship-building and fostering the strong sense of institutional purpose to sustain the allegiance of those supporters.  

“You need to deeply engage your professional community. You need to strengthen generational connections with alumni,” Ernzen says. “That’s how to open a wider path for our students to get the kind of education we want for them.”

So now, in addition to his teaching, Ernzen will lead the charge to achieve these goals as the first PENTA Building Group Professor for Construction in the Del E. Webb School of Construction.

Ernzen’s overall directive in the position is to enhance the experience of undergraduate students in the school, which is part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

Strengthening students’ connection with alumni and industry

Ernzen will work with faculty advisors of student organizations to increase student interaction with alumni and industry, and support students’ participation in industry events, including national conferences.

Additionally, Ernzen will help form student teams to enter national and international collegiate competitions sponsored by prominent construction industry associations and institutes —and provide mentorship for those teams.

His to-do list also includes helping students develop closer relationships with alumni and industry professionals to raise their awareness of Del E. Webb School’s continuing growth and broadening academic and research excellence. 

“We want to make sure our graduates walk out of here with a thorough knowledge of what they will do in their jobs and what they need to do to advance in their careers,” Ernzen says. “Strong connections with our alumni in the industry are going to enable them to do that.”

These relationships will enhance students’ learning experiences, giving them invaluable insight into the field.

“We need many people in the industry to share their knowledge and skills with our students,” says Associate Professor Anthony Lamanna, chair of the construction management program. “Many are alumni and program supporters who are pioneers in new construction methods, procedures and businesses. We need to ensure our students can effectively learn from them, and Jim is excellent at creating and maintaining that link between them and our current students.”

Ehrets’ contributions are raising construction school’s stature

portrait of Jeff and Mary Ehret

In addition to funding The PENTA Building Group Professorship, Jeff and Mary Ehret’s support of the Arizona State University’s construction education programs includes helping to fund construction of the building that houses those programs, provides a student recruiter and enables students to participate in industry-sponsored events. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Support for Ernzen’s new endeavor comes through ASU construction management alumnus Jeff Ehret, CEO of The PENTA Building Group, and his wife, Mary.

The Ehrets’ contributions have been helping to fuel the advance of ASU’s construction education programs for most of the past two decades.

Most notably, The PENTA Building Group has funded a program since 2005 that annually awards a scholarship to a student, providing up to four years of financial assistance to pursue an undergraduate degree in construction management or construction engineering at ASU.

The Ehrets also established an endowment that provides funds annually for students to participate in regional and national competitions. The PENTA Building Group was also a significant donor to the capital campaign to fund construction of the College Avenue Commons building where the Del E. Webb School is housed.

Headquartered in Las Vegas, The PENTA Building Group is a nationally recognized commercial building contractor with offices in three other cities, including Phoenix.

The company — which has hired several graduates of ASU construction programs since it formed in 2000 — was selected as Southwest Contractor of the Year in 2015 by the construction industry publication Engineering News Record and named the 2016 Contractor of the Year by the Las Vegas Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.

Professorship position key to attracting new faculty and students

Ehret says The PENTA Building Group’s success has enabled him to put his philanthropy to work at ASU, where his time earning a bachelor’s degree in construction management in 1976 and an MBA from the business school three years later was “a fantastic, life-changing experience.”

His service is “all in the spirit of giving back to an institution that absolutely prepared me well to accomplish what I’ve done in my profession,” Ehret says.

The Ehrets’ largesse has helped to bolster productive efforts in recent years to heighten prospective students’ interest in the school.

The company also supports a dedicated recruiter who works solely for the Del E. Webb School. That has had a significant impact on the steady increase in enrollment, says Ernzen, who was director of the Del E. Webb School from 2005 to 2009, when the Ehrets began to ramp up their financial support. 

Since it began in 1957, ASU’s construction management program has graduated more than 3,000 students and now has its highest enrollment ever — with 416 undergraduate students and 174 graduate students, including 17 doctoral students, as of this semester. The program has almost doubled its overall enrollment over the past five years.

Funding a new professorship, Ehret says, “just makes sense at this point” to ensure an improvement in the quality of education needed to maintain the growth trend. Such prestigious positions can enable the school to recruit and keep the top-notch faculty members who, in turn, will attract and retain more top students, he says.

Hardy goals with credentials to match

As the first to fill that the role, Ernzen brings a broad range of expertise and leadership experience to the job.

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and a doctoral degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, equipped him for the job he held as a project engineer and construction manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for almost a decade, and later as deputy director of the Corps’ Concrete Laboratory for three years before spending another three years on the civil and mechanical engineering faculty at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

He joined the Del E. Webb School’s faculty in 1996, serving for two years as director of undergraduate studies, then as the schools’ director for four years.

Ernzen’s work has earned special recognition from the Design Build Institute of America, the American Institute of Steel Constructors and the Arizona Chapter of the American Concrete Institute, which gave him its Lifetime Membership Award.

He is a director of the American Concrete Institute’s Arizona Chapter and currently advises the organization’s student chapter at ASU. He also and co-advises to the Fulton Schools student military veterans organization.

To accomplish the goals laid out for The PENTA Building Group Professorship, Ernzen says he will need every skill learned from the many responsibilities he has undertaken over the past 40-plus years as an engineer, construction professional and teacher.

“We need more well-educated people, across the entire spectrum of our industry, from the PhDs who will become professors and researchers to the construction equipment operators on the ground,” he says.

Fulfilling that aspiration presents him with a multidimensional set of tasks, including fundraising, cultivating more connections between students and faculty, alumni and industry partners, and recruiting more faculty with the knowledge and expertise to raise the level of students’ academic experiences.

Ready to take educational endeavors to the next level

Professor Ram Pendyala, interim director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, is confident Ernzen is up to the task.

“Our students have greatly benefited from the learning opportunities, educational experiences, and mentoring that Jim has tirelessly provided over the past few decades,” Pendyala says. “So, we are looking forward to benefiting further from his dedication to developing the next generation of construction professionals in his new role as the The PENTA Building Group Professor.”

Former and current students echo those expectations of Ernzen.

“He provided great guidance and input during my undergrad years, as well as support for establishing a new student organization,” says Jeremy Meek, a 2009 construction management graduate. He is now a principal of Desert Star Construction, a Scottsdale-based luxury homebuilding company that funds two scholarship programs for Del E. Webb School students.

Ernzen “invested countless hours, energy and passion” into ensuring students’ success in schoolwork and into preparing them for careers, Meek says. “The construction program would not be what it is today without him and others like him.”

Macy Canete, a construction management senior on course to graduate in the spring of 2020, says Ernzen “goes above and beyond” to make sure students “are not just memorizing their lessons to pass tests” but fully comprehending what he is teaching.

“He is a great role model who is having an impact on our profession because he’s igniting our desire to strive to be better at whatever we do,” Canete says.

Ernzen says his new title comes with the most daunting array of job duties he’s ever had, but also the most exhilarating prospects for making a significant difference.

“We want to elevate everything we are doing,” he says of the Del E. Webb School leadership and faculty, “and it’s really energizing to be a part of building an enduring legacy for the future.”

Building a legacy

With The PENTA Building Group endowed professorship, Jim Ernzen joins a distinguished group of Del E. Webb School faculty members. Anthony Lamanna is the Sundt Professor of Alternative Delivery Methods & Sustainable Development and G. Edward Gibson Jr. is the Sunstate Chair of Construction and Engineering.

The school also has an endowed AGC Lecturer position held by Barry Kutz and funded by the Arizona Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, as well as an endowed Beavers Heavy Construction Chair position named in honor of longtime school supporters Bill Ames and Wink Ames. The chair is held by Professor of Practice Wylie Bearup. Kutz and Bearup have each had decades-long leadership roles in their construction industry careers.

These endowed positions are building the foundations on which the school can achieve increasingly robust educational excellence and further establish a legacy of impact on the construction industry.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-8122 | [email protected]

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