If anyone in the building business had mentioned "construction management" 15 years ago, he would've met blank expressions. The job didn't exist.

When the upstart Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) meets in Hilton Head, S.C., in September, its priority will be to define the construction manager's job. After 15 years of ups and downs and industry feuding, construction managers (called CMs) want to impose standards and certification on themselves -- a first step in "cleaning up the reputation of the profession," according to one insider.

At the heart of construction managers' struggle for professionalism are confusion with and competition with general contractors -- traditionally, the bosses on the construction scene. But it was the shortcomings of the building industry that opened the door to construction management.

"The construction industry is fraught with many, many problems," says Lee R. McClure, CMAA president and head of Construction Control Systems Inc. in Columbia, S.C. "It probably has progressed the least of any major industry in the last 100 years."

A 1983 study of construction cost-effectiveness by the Business Roundtable, an independent organization of business analysts in New York, showed that productivity in construction has declined every year since 1969. Estimates of job efficiency ranged from 30 to 50 percent. Giving the benefit of the doubt, that means a $10 million project, in which a typical 40 percent of cost is labor, wastes at least $2 million in inefficiency.

"It's frighteningly accurate," McClure says of the study. "Construction, unfortunately, has been an industry known for poor management."

CM got its start in the late '60s when corporations such as General Electric recognized they weren't getting their money's worth on building contracts. Steeped in management techniques, they started to apply that knowledge to construction. Soon, the General Services Administration (GSA), the nation's largest builder, embraced CM, giving the embryonic profession its biggest boost. While GSA's CM program required a thorough cost-analysis of a project's design, materials and methods, it also strapped government CMs with federal red tape, practically guaranteeing failure. GSA's CM program was a bust by 1978, suggesting to some industry cynics that construction management was an idea whose time hadn't come.

"CM didn't work for GSA, but it began to work for other people," says McClure. "Unfortunately, anybody could call themselves a construction manager. It probably had 100 definitions."

Among them, says Richard Ekfelt, CMAA executive director, were builders and general contractors who labeled themselves "construction managers" without having the necessary skills. They botched jobs and CMs got more bad press, says Ekfelt. Thus the push to "clear up the CM image."

"What kind of qualifications and skills do CMs need?" McClure asks rhetorically. "Unlike a general contractor, a CM is an agent of the project owner and performs design and management services -- cost-control and quality-control, scheduling, management and reporting systems, and procurement. He coordinates subcontractors, eliminating the need for a general contractor.

"General contractors have resisted this -- they've always had the construction field to themselves," says McClure, adding that an average of 5 to 15 percent in savings on building projects can be attributed directly to using a CM.

"The general contractor will tell you he has been managing construction 15 years, but what they call construction management is nothing more than a negotiated contract."

General contracting representatives admit any bad blood between CMs and contractors exists because they're both dividing the same piece of pie.

"We're competitors," says William Henry, spokesman for Associated General Contractors of America. "We'd like to have all of their business and they'd like to have all of ours." While Henry admits "you've got to be a pretty sophisticated general contractor to begin to even qualify to get into the CM market," he adds that construction contractors are "getting into construction management."

McClure says that's proof of the CMs' impact. "Over 70 percent of all hospitals built today are built under CM, and in education it's over 50 percent," he says. "The majority of the large architectural and engineering firms have CM divisions, and there are hundreds of independent CM firms. And now, universities like Clemson and the University of Florida offer construction management programs. CM is the trend in construction." Second Careers

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