Still a Mystery, Part 1

Vince Bailey

January 2008

Through the course of penning this column for the past 10 months or so, I’ve tried to present a number of pertinent aspects to this strange and unique business of commercial drywall estimating. In the process, I’d hoped to pass along some useful approaches to our trade, and to demonstrate the depth and dimensionality of our profession and its many facets. So it was with some initial annoyance that I received an ill-founded challenge from one of my colleagues last week: "What one thing does an estimator need to know to be good at what he does?” The inarticulate framing of his question was as simplistic-sounding as its dismissive assumption that proficiency in our livelihood could possibly be summed up in a single premise. What a dolt!

Still, in trying to retain my perceived air of authority on the subject, I took the bait, rose to the challenge and came to the startling realization that, in spite of the apparent complexity of our craft, there is one elusive variable, the mastery of which would render any mediocre, would-be quantifier a veritable wizard—labor productivity!

Why I have not to date produced a piece on this pivotal component to our business is quite beyond me. It is the one looming mystery that separates sophisticated construction prognosticators, such as ourselves, from mere formulaic bean-counters. It is the unknown variable that allows us to legitimately indulge in a thinly disguised preoccupation with gambling—and with someone else’s money, yet!

But questionable attempts at levity notwithstanding, the singular importance of determining realistic labor productivities cannot be over-emphasized, and as slippery as labor production levels can be, a set of formulas that represent reasonable average rates is a good base from which to start. It is best to build your own tables, and reliable sources for the information are plentiful. Median production levels (national averages) for most basic commercial drywall assemblies are available online.

Another good way to come up with a solid set of production tables is to hold a brainstorm session among your colleagues—estimators, project managers and field managers. This way you get the benefit of several experienced perspectives and the added bonus of buy-in from everyone involved. By far the most valuable source will be historical data from past performance of your company’s own labor pool. Of course, the most reliable rate table would be the product of a combination of these sources.

But once you’ve built a set of average production rates for the most basic assemblies, don’t get too dependent on the charts. They may be a good starting point, but production rates vary profoundly from project to project, and this is where the mysteries creep in and play havoc with even the most thoughtfully conceived set of labor rates.

Variables include jobsite conditions, manpower availability, regional differences, equipment availability, efficiency of supervision (or the lack thereof), travel to the site, GC’s coordination of the job, union activity, cultural considerations, and even seasonal changes (consider the effect that July in Miami or January in Minneapolis can have on productivity). These and other such variables may have crucial impact on your productivities, or very little. The point is that their impact fluctuates from job to job, and your responsibility, as construction prognosticator, is to predict the degree to which each variable may or may not affect those charted rates you so brilliantly produced.

How can a good, conscientious estimator resolve all of these mysteries without resorting to tossing chicken bones or reading tea leaves? The answer is the subject of my piece for next month: teaming up with a field operations manager to get the very best read on labor productions.

About the Author
Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for San Juan Insulation and Drywall, Durango, Colo.