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Zair Cheema: “You Cannot Get Bored in This Industry”

For Zair Cheema, teaching in the Construction Administration master’s program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies is a bit like lifting a veil—a chance to open eyes to a secret world that has been hiding in plain sight. 

“I think there are very few students who grow up wanting to work in the construction industry. Honestly, when I decided to study mechanical engineering, I was really just playing the cards. Before that, I thought construction was carpentry, bricks—contracting. I wasn't aware of the engineering and the financial models behind it, all these things we don’t see right away.”

In the seven years he has worked in the industry, Cheema has covered a lot of ground. After starting as a mechanical engineer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and later the construction giant Turner, he followed his interest in building systems and creating design solutions for clients to a role as a project manager at The Falcon Group. Now a Senior Cost Manager for the construction management firm Cumming, Cheema hopes to get students in his Introduction to Building Systems course to recognize the possibilities he sees in the building business.

“I've been in different areas of the industry: general contractor subcontracting, design consulting, now on the owner side. It’s exciting—you cannot get bored in this industry.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, Cheema was introduced to the industry by his father, who owned a home construction business, but never expected his son to follow the same path, insisting only that he get an education. Even after earning both his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and M.S. in Industrial Engineering, Cheema approaches education as an endless journey of pursuing new interests and expanding his understanding of the industry.

“Most of the jobs I’ve had grew out of just seeing how the industry works, making connections and then going for an opportunity. Just being curious helped me, but I’ve also been lucky to have good bosses and mentors who would support me and open opportunities when I showed an interest and asked questions.”

That curiosity has propelled Cheema’s professional growth from mechanical engineer to design consultant and owner’s representative, and it has helped him to build a crucial understanding of how things work—something he tries to inspire in his students.

“When I teach the Intro to Building Systems course, my goal is not to transform my students into engineers or professional designers. But I do want them to understand how a system works so they know what’s happening when water comes out of your faucet or when air comes out of the vent.”

Ultimately, he says, a building has to work—but it also has to serve a purpose and fulfill a need. At a time when the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on New York City real estate and construction are still unclear, Cheema is optimistic that the industry will evolve to meet new needs and priorities, from greater energy sustainability to more affordable options for the working-class residents who enable the city to function.

Other schools might have construction administration programs, but they’re not connected to the industry and the city in the same way that Columbia is.

Zair Cheema, Associate Instructor, M.S. in Construction Administration

“Naturally, students are asking if there will be a job market slowdown. Sure, there will be a pause, but developers have to build what people need.”

And Columbia graduates, Cheema adds, are well-positioned to seize the opportunities when they arise. 

“Other schools might have construction administration or construction management programs, but they’re not connected to the industry and the city in the same way that Columbia is. Fran—Academic Director Francisco X. Pineda—is very well-connected and understands what students need. I actually encouraged my brother to apply.”

As a lifelong New Yorker who knows how much the city has endured, Cheema is confident that New York City and its vital construction industry will flourish.

“I was reading a blog post by Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist, and he basically said, ‘If New York was a startup, I’d invest in it.' I think it’s a great time to buy real estate here. But I’m a positive person—I’m always positive!”

Learn more about the M.S. in Construction Administration program