Strip malls, walkable communities and big-box developments may seem like a thing of the past thanks to the recession, but the University of Utah is betting the construction industry will bounce back, and when it does, the school plans to have a new crop of graduate students at the ready.

The state Board of Regents on Friday granted the university approval for a master's in real estate development degree, a professional degree available at only a handful of top-level colleges across the nation.

"If you look to the past, one of the main drivers of Utah's economy has been the construction industry," said Scott Schaefer, associate dean for academic affairs at the U.'s David Eccles School of Business. He said there is definitely an increasing local demand for people who understand real estate development, both private and commercial.

Schaefer, who is also an economist, says that the recession in Utah "is just a speed bump." The regents' approval of the program will allow the school to officially market the degree and begin enrolling students. Despite an economic recession and a decrease in new construction throughout the state, Schaefer said there is high demand for skills that are useful across a broad range of employers.

Jonathan Ellsworth is one student who plans to take advantage of the program in hopes of finishing just when the economy rebounds. In the meantime, he works in a downtown consulting office, writing environmental surveys for future developments. He recently graduated from the U. with a bachelor's degree in city and metropolitan planning, but he has yet to use his expertise on projects because there just aren't many currently in the works.

Ellsworth really wants to get his hands dirty with big-time developments, but he still needs some of the skills pertinent to the job.

"I didn't feel like (my degree) fulfilled my dreams," he said.

MIT was the first school in the country to offer formal graduate education in real estate development, in 1983. Other schools, such as Arizona State, Clemson and Columbia universities, followed suit.

Sustainable development and "green building," which Ellsworth says is "definitely a buzz word right now," are also important aspects of the curriculum.

The Ivory-Boyer Real Estate Center at the U. opened two years ago with the purpose of establishing the degree, and up to now, the center's biggest venture has been the Utah Real Estate Challenge, a statewide collegiate competition that offers a $20,000 prize for the winning team of students and their idea for unique development strategies.

The U. does not offer an undergraduate degree in real estate, but Schaefer said many in the business have asked about advanced, professional training over the years. The new cross-disciplinary program, he said, will help satisfy industry needs that are increasingly in demand.