The presenters’ visions for a new mixed-use development stretched beyond a blend of commercial, retail and residential properties. Delivered via Zoom, the project proposals included design elements focused on sustainability and wellness, a business development fund to help local entrepreneurs, tax credits for low-income housing and gorgeous patches of green space.

The presenters, however, were not seasoned development teams. They were teams of high school students participating in the 2020 Real Estate Exchange (REEX) Summer Program — a two-week immersion program in commercial real estate. And the development proposals were their capstone project.

“You had to remind yourself that this was a group of high school students because, watching their presentations, you would completely forget that… Some of the complexities these students had picked up and integrated into their presentations were well beyond high-school level,” said Ken McIntyre, Chief Executive Officer of the Real Estate Executive Council (REEC).

The REEX Summer Program is organized by REEC, NAIOP, Cornell University, the University of Miami, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and LEADing for Life and presented by CRE executives and professors. This summer, the program gave 141 talented, minority, high school students education in the fundamentals of commercial real estate, an introduction to the array of possible careers within CRE, and insights into the industry’s realities and potential.

At the end of the REEX Summer Program, three teams of high school students (each representing a different university) presented their capstone projects and competed for several thousand dollars of prize money, provided by Toll Brothers. Here, the team from Cornell University presents their capstone vision for a mixed-use development. Photo courtesy of the Real Estate Executive Council.

For many students, the experience is a revelation, said Diana Tucker, Vice President, Membership and Chapter Relations for NAIOP. “The commercial real estate industry has a lot of legacy professionals. People from diverse backgrounds may not have familial connections to this industry… so these young, gifted and talented students may not even recognize commercial real estate as a career option.”

The REEX Summer Program changes that perception.

“One of the most telling indicators is the delta between the students’ previous awareness of commercial real estate as a possible career field and their interest [after the immersion program] in studying the field,” Tucker said.

In a survey of one previous cohort of the immersion program, none of the students had prior knowledge of careers in CRE. Following the program, 37.5 percent said they intended to major in CRE in college, 18.8 percent planned to pursue a CRE minor and 50 percent said they were interested in a career in some aspect of CRE.

Due to the pandemic, REEX organizers had to turn the immersion program into a virtual learning experience in 2020. Previous cohorts spent their two weeks experiencing college campuses firsthand and touring a variety of CRE developments, including the Amazon Biodome, FMC Tower in Philadelphia, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market and the Tyler Perry Studios.

However, high-quality presentations, time-lapse videos of construction projects, drone tours of developments and the opportunity to interact with students from 23 states created a stimulating virtual experience this year, McIntyre said.

Now REEC and NAIOP are looking to expand the program in 2021. In the past, local NAIOP chapters have helped start up local sessions by partnering with universities that offer courses in real estate. NAIOP offers guidance and can offer some financial support to chapters joining the REEX program.

In addition to providing education and career insights to students, the initiative also addresses a core challenge facing the industry, McIntyre said. “The real estate industry is in a war for talent with other industries so we need to expose more students to the benefits of a career in commercial real estate as early as possible in order to make that war for talent a fair fight.”