With a Little Outside Help
“Happy Days Are Here Again”—a Depression era song by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen
While economic recovery has been plodding along at a snail’s pace in general over the past several “post recession” years, I think it’s fair to say that the comeback in commercial construction has been somewhat steady and even pretty darn healthy in some regions. Industries including energy, health care, hospitality and insurance have known enough recent activity to provide a comfortable survival and even some modest gains by wall and ceiling contractors. But with the political landscape changing, the comeback portends to become even more robust. Increased government investment in defense and infrastructure projects, combined with the easement of stifling regulation and corporate taxation, all point toward an unprecedented economic surge over the next couple of years or longer. In other words, it’s going to be yuge!
And even though a burgeoning economy translates into a thriving building industry, the predicted increase in activity does not come without its problems. Along with the escalating backlogs, which we all welcome, shortages in skilled labor, under-experienced supervisors and material allocations are negative symptoms of growth that most estimators are already experiencing and having to factor into bids. But perhaps the most crucial crunch of all is only beginning to hit us: a dearth of qualified commercial drywall estimators. Some industry prognosticators have projected a shortfall of available competent estimators to be up to 26 percent over the next 10 years.
But even now, commercial drywall contractors are experiencing conditions that beg for added help in the quantifying department—help that just isn’t there. Take this scenario, for example: Two of your favored general contractors are bidding different jobs at the same time, and your stable is already up to its ears in work. With the increase in activity, this situation is likely to arise more often than you think.
Then there are the regular conditions that come up right when the “jobs to bid” calendar is busting at the seams. There’s sickness. You don’t want one estimator coming in to work with the flu to infect all your staff, even if it means taking a pass on a once-in-a-lifetime project with your favorite GC, right? Or your senior estimator comes down with a simple chest cold that suddenly develops into pneumonia. It happens. Vacations get planned well ahead of time, and bidmeisters are encouraged to avail themselves of some well-earned time away from the notorious stress that our profession is famous for. Too bad they always seem to fall when the calendar is slammed. Then there are those whose departure is of the more permanent persuasion. Whether fired, quit or retired, the average duration of an estimator’s stay with one contractor is five years. Odds are you’re going to lose one or more bidmeisters to those averages over the next couple of hay-day years. But with the increased demand and shortage of competent quantifiers in the job market, filling these gaps with new hires when they are needed is likely to turn into a long-term affair. In spite of good times, the chances of keeping your bidding potential abreast of the coming surge are gloomy indeed.
But, as always, there is an answer to this dilemma that creative problem-solving contractors are already practicing: outsource estimating. For both long- and short-term staffing shortfalls, there are a number of estimating services for walls and ceilings that utilize the most common estimating programs, making them a good fit for stopgap servicing for temporary shortages or even long-term deficiencies. Utilizing estimating services makes good sense for a number of reasons. First, you avoid the costs associated with hiring a full time, permanent employee—training, payroll taxes, benefits, etc. Fee structures vary from an hourly rate on task, much like lawyers, to a percentage of the bid cost. Moreover, you retain the service only on an as-needed basis, and most services are tailored and staffed to accommodate with short notice. Consider the aforementioned scenarios—vacations, illnesses, temporary surges in activity—and how a service could remedy those situations. Or perhaps you are in the market to hire one or more full-time estimators, but as we said, the pickin’s are pretty slim. A temporary fill-in will allow you the much-needed time to exercise some careful consideration when a hiring opportunity arises. Current advances in information technology make outsourcing all the more suitable, as invitations to bid, document links to plans and specs, addenda, bid reports and proposals can all be accessed via the Web. Thus a contractor in Denver can utilize and stay in constant contact with an estimator in Cincinnati.
Regardless of your particular circumstances, outsourcing some (or even all) of your estimating needs is an option you should explore in advance of some in-house calamity. A little prior research could assist you in preparing for the unexpected with a contingency plan, or it could provide you with a more stable procurement program. After all, in these “Happy Days,” finding a good estimator at a moment’s notice can be a real problem.
But having experienced the alternative atmosphere, these are the kinds of problems to have, right?
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.