Welcome to My World, Part 2

Vince Bailey

July 2008

Last month, we left you in the predicament of having to hire an estimator (gasp!). We explored the different circumstances that may have brought you to this lowly state of managerial angst, and we suggested what you might ponder in terms of the qualifications you will require of your estimator candidate. We also proposed the possible time frames you will face in filling your vacant position—agenda-driven limitations mandated by your particular circumstances, ranging from "sometime in the near future” to "yesterday.”

Just for argument’s sake, let’s lump you in with the latter—that is, with the vast majority of employee-seekers who have, for whatever reason, found themselves burdened with a sudden and unanticipated hole in their procurement program that cannot be filled by a well-meaning trainee, or a road-and-bridge estimator who is looking for a "related line of work.” You’re caught between unreasonable time constraints, and the need to glean the perfect fit for your organization from a decidedly slim list of possibilities. Feeling somewhat desperate? Been there.

Well, once you’ve ruled out the alternative career option—or worse still, that of settling for a less-than-qualified candidate—you might consider something I suggested in a previous column. I refer to farming out some of your estimating workload to a reliable outsource estimator, at least on a temporary basis. This stop-gap tactic can buy you some valuable time to plan and execute a thoughtful employee search and relieve the desperation that might otherwise coerce you into hiring an under-skilled estimator (perish the thought!).

Now that you’ve eliminated the time-frame pitfall with a quick-fix, you should now be wondering about how to plan your search. I suggest that your first effort be put into working up a very specific job description. This should consist of 12 to 20 priority expectations that you will have of your new estimator, including your scope of work, software familiarity, proposal format, expected bid volume and procurement levels—just to name a few. Drafting a thoughtful job description will not only focus you on the qualifications you will want to express in an ad or cover in an interview, but it will also help candidates determine for themselves whether they will be a possible fit for your vacancy.

Once you’ve compiled your point-by-point job description, you must decide what outlets you will utilize to conduct your search—in other words, how to cast your nets. Newspaper ads can be effective if placed strategically in multiple metro publications in your region (this method is also surprisingly expensive). Placing a concise ad in a trade magazine such as this one might be better aimed. Online placement services, some of which are exclusively construction-oriented, generally encourage you to submit a condensed job description, and will also allow you to scan a large database of rèsumès. Depending on what your personal ethics dictate, you may want to troll for a candidate among former associates, or even among competitors. The apparent advantage—firsthand knowledge of your candidate—may outweigh the bad taste this approach leaves in your mouth. Perhaps the most costly approach (but maybe the most effective) involves taking advantage of a number of construction-oriented headhunters. They generally maintain a large stable of construction manager types (estimators included). Once you get over the sticker shock, this avenue may be worth it to you. Many of these services guarantee a "perfect fit,” or no fee is remitted.

Once you have made contact with a prospective new-hire, you will want to conduct multiple interviews to get a feel for your candidate’s skills and disposition. Of course, in-person interviews are preferred over telephone examinations, even if costly travel expenses are involved (offer to reimburse rather than pre-pay; this helps to eliminate the less serious inquiries). A face-to-face meeting is indispensable, in that it solidifies a mutual understanding of expectations. Ask relevant questions. Review the job description and discuss each point at length. Encourage questions and comments from your prospective employee. Get to know him/her as time permits.

One final hint: Have your candidate perform a takeoff on a set of plans/specs for a project you’ve already done and are familiar with. This will give you a clear insight into the estimator’s level of skill and knowledge working within realm of your firm’s preferred project size and scope. Along these same lines, ask to see a sample of his/her proposals and correspondence, if good written communication is one of your prerequisites.

Well, I’ve fallen into the trap of dictating a "how-to” guide to hiring an estimator, even though I initiated this piece with the intent of merely sharing general thoughts and experiences on how to approach this dilemma. Nevertheless, I believe I’ve hit on some valuable hints on how to think your way out of another loathsome pitfall of our profession. It can all be boiled down into a couple of sage phrases that are universally applicable: Take your time; get it right. Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for San Juan Insulation and Drywall, Durango, Colo.