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Can Real Estate Firms Fill the Technology Skill Gap?

Every piece of technology requires new processes, and every time humans have to learn something new, there is a learning curve. The learning process could be short and straightforward for simple technologies with incremental advancements. At the same time, it can be much more complex for major advancements that implement entirely new software systems. Since the real estate industry is transforming wholesale into something more data-oriented and digitally delivered, there is a clear and expanding learning curve for professionals looking to enter the field. Real estate knowledge plus tech competence in today’s market equals real innovation, so what can real estate firms do to ensure that they are ready for the technology revolution?

Real innovation is happening right now. Deloitte’s 2022 Commercial Real Estate Outlook survey found that North American respondents expected their tech budgets to increase by 11 percent in 2022. Property companies need to make sure that they properly equip their staff to manage, refine, and reap the benefits of these enlarged tech budgets, whether real estate professionals or tech experts.

Hiring a C-level expert to unite tech and data tools and connect siloed information can be a big part of solving the PropTech skill equation. A CTO’s role can bake good data practices and a long-term tech mindset into the more traditional analog considerations of the other members of the c-suite. But simply setting the strategy and uniting vision from the top down is not enough to ready an organization for an innovative future. 

While top-down effort is important, a bottom-up effort is also critical here. Like warfare, technology strategy alone is not enough to carry the day. Real estate firms need to consider how their entire workforces are equipped to handle the new data and tech needs of the 2020s through high-quality hiring decisions and ongoing education of existing staff. Both of these elements are necessary to ensure that the entire organization is ready to answer the skill equation.

According to Andrew Hanson, associate professor and acting department head with the University of Illinois Chicago’s (UIC) real estate department, data training is a big part of that readiness. Professor Hanson has taken a leading role with UIC’s brand-new real estate major, which will soon become an official university offering. “One of the main focuses our program will have is a real emphasis on data analytics. To us, it is very clear students will need at least some kind of background in those skills, whether they are performing it themselves or managing analytics performed by others.” The data orientation of the program runs deep. For instance, one class offered by the department gives students the chance to use the statistical program R to create their own housing price index instead of simply learning how to interpret pre-existing ones. 

By now, it should not be controversial to say that for the real estate firms of the future, data is the lingua franca that will unite everyone regardless of their property type or strategy. Unlike coding or software engineering, it’s also one of the areas where there is an apparent technical skill overlap between real estate firms and the technology companies that market to them. Perhaps real estate firms can take a note or two from the world of PropTech hiring, which is an entirely different beast. 

According to Xan Winterton, managing director of North America for PropTech recruiting firm LMRE, you don’t necessarily need a technical degree to get into a technical role. “Some PropTech companies provide people with background tech training info. If you have an understanding of Python and Java, you can potentially go into a product role. If you have the ability, there are lots of courses that will provide a crash course on those languages, definitely do them.” Taking a lesson here, real estate companies might want to offer training themselves or perhaps subsidize tech boot camps, evening classes, or online courses for some of their staff. 

At the same time, running periodic training events to ensure that any tech employees understand the fundamentals of real estate is something else that could improve organizational communication and knowledge sharing as a whole. 

Whether real estate firms choose to bring on new professionals in traditional real estate disciplines like finance or economics or tech-centered fields like computer or data science, ensuring that these candidates have a baseline of exposure to the other side of the skill equation has to be a major training priority. Xan added that some PropTech job candidates come to the table with real experiences in real estate even if they are straight out of school, often by working in brokerage roles. “​​Part of it is getting that understanding of real estate, making connections, but also understanding what some terminology means, and the candidates won’t need to have been in one of those roles very long to get that.” By the same token, hiring real estate employees who have dabbled in tech might be a strategy worth considering. 

At the end of the day, tech employees don’t need to be able to run entire real estate transactions by themselves, and real estate employees shouldn’t be expected to be experts in coding or development. But being literate across both worlds and understanding what tech can actually achieve is the key to cultivating a resourceful, creative workforce that can help the real estate world transition into its digital future.

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