During the 1990s, a booming Indianapolis apartment market was becoming increasingly competitive.
About 10,000 units were added to the market in the second half of the decade and professional, well-educated managers to run them were in short supply.
Enter the Apartment Association of Indiana, which figured the best way to find the professionals apartment owners needed was to grow their own, so to speak, by creating a post-secondary education degree program for the industry.
At that time, Virginia Tech was the only university offering a residential property management degree program. Florida State University was considering one.
So Lynne Moistner and others with the apartment association looked around for a college closer to home it could convince of the need for such a program.
"The reality was there was nowhere to get the training and education needed," said Moistner, who has been with the association 16 years and now serves as its executive director. "And it was difficult to attract people to the industry because it was not recognized as a career, just a job."
The association does provide training to its ranks, but typically to people who need refresher courses. Nobody was teaching young people what they needed to know to get into the field, Moistner said.
"Skills needed have changed over the years," she said. "We needed to bring more people into this industry who were professional and well-educated."
Ball State University in Muncie, with its department of family and consumer sciences, was the logical choice, Moistner said.
"The apartment association assured us they had the support of the industry for such a program," said Carla Earhart, director of BSU's residential property management program. "They told us it would not be difficult for our graduates to find jobs."
Modeled after the Virginia Tech program, the BSU program includes courses in apartment maintenance, interior design, construction, government and elderly housing, plus accounting, marketing and others. Students are also required to complete an internship.
Currently, about 80 students are enrolled in the undergraduate program. About 50 students have graduated from the program, which has grown to include a graduate and a minor program.
Brandon Conway, who graduated from Ball State University about a year ago, had a job offer before he finished. Hired to manage a property for locally based Mark III Management Co., he has since been promoted to assistant regional manager.
"I wouldn't have the position I have now without the program," Conway said. "During school and my internship, I was meeting presidents of management companies. The networking opportunities were key to getting hired."
While interning for Mark III, he trained for the position the company ultimately offered him upon graduation.
Like many other residential property management students, Conway didn't start out having declared it as his major.
"I never would have thought my interest was in apartment management," he said. "I was an architecture major."
After taking one of Earhart's classes, he was drawn into the apartment management industry and believed landing a job would be easy.
Today, Conway manages nine of Mark III's 22 properties.
Jaimie Hegger, a 2002 graduate, also said landing a job upon graduation was a snap.
Hegger was hired as an assistant property manager and now manages Continental Towers and two other apartment complexes downtown owned by locally based Van Rooy Properties.
Hegger sees an industry that is still growing partly due to a cultural shift that may be delaying people from buying a home, thus creating more demand for apartment living.
"People are often more transient these days," she said. "They don't always want to settle down in a house right away until they are sure it's where they want to stay for a while."
Like Conway, Hegger didn't set out to be a property manager. Originally an interior design student, Hegger switched when she heard Earhart speak about the prospects to be had in the industry.
And that industry is hiring BSU grads as fast as the university is graduating them.
The Buckingham Cos., a locally based firm that develops and manages apartments in the Midwest, has hired eight graduates and 14 interns.
"I'm constantly looking for people," said Alexandra Jaciw, president of Buckingham's property management arm.
"People need places to live, and not everyone can afford single-family housing," said Jaciw, who was on the original advisory board that helped get the Ball State program off the ground.
"Sometimes people live in apartments by choice, sometimes by circumstance," she said. "Good rental managers can reduce the turnover of tenants."
Jaciw was also on the advisory board for the Virginia Tech program and knew it could work for the Indianapolis market as well. Not all BSU grads stay in Indiana, she said. Students have found jobs across the country.
"We'd like for them all to stay here," Jaciw said. "But most students have multiple job offers upon graduation. They've got options and can go anywhere."
And the salary and free housing are making this a popular career choice, Jaciw said.
A manager of a 300-unit complex can start with a salary of about $50,000, she said. And a free apartment is almost always part of the compensation package.
Even the commercial side of the business could benefit from BSU's residential program.
"A lot of people who start out in residential property management go on to commercial property management," said George Tikijian, principal of locally based real estate firm Tikijian Associates.
Tikijian said the biggest boost the BSU program will give the apartment industry is to increase the number of professional and well-educated staffers.
"It wasn't always college-educated people who were hired for these jobs," said Tikijian, who has been an officer of the apartment association for 15 years.
A decrease in turnover will be a major improvement. Now the industry is hiring people into a career, not a job, Tikijian said.
"If you'd have asked me about this kind of job before going through the program, I probably wouldn't have considered it," said Conway, 24, who travels between West Lafayette and Martinsville as he visits his properties. "Now, it just seems right and I know there's a lot more here that I can do."