Five Reasons to Never Ever Become a Construction Estimator
A Survivor's Tale
S.S. Saucerman / December 2018
I recently retired from the construction industry, and I’m proud to share that the profession to which I devoted over four decades of sweat, sacrifice and surrender has left me financially equipped and emotionally prepared to enjoy a rich, carefree retirement providing I die tomorrow before lunch.
But it was a good run. But it was a good run. Twenty-five of those years were spent as both a commercial general construction estimator and project manager, but my duties shifted almost exclusively to cost estimating toward the end. At the time, I thought this was cause I was good at estimating (and that management was finally acknowledging my amazing abilities), but in hindsight I’m thinking it had more to do with the fact that I was bad at noticing that no one else wanted to do it.
Death, Dying and Estimating
But enough about that. Let’s set our theme for today. Ready? It’s this: Estimating sucks! It’s a horrible, awful, retched occupation and I wouldn’t wish it upon my second-worst enemy (Brent did deserve it). Estimating is math (Motto: It’s all fun and games until someone divides by zero). Lots of math. More math than you can imagine—Scotch-taped glasses, pocket protector, Sharpie™ marker assortment, geek-level stuff.
There’s little glamor or reward, and in the quarter century I spent crunching numbers, juggling spreadsheets and deciphering hopelessly indecipherable subcontractor/supplier proposals, I enjoyed a total of 4 hours and 17 minutes. This consisted of Christmas parties, power outages, snow days and that awesome time Tom passed decibel-shattering wind at right at a truly critical moment in his PowerPoint® presentation. We didn’t get the job, but he did wake up a full two-thirds of the school board members in attendance. They’re still upset about it.
But these were the only good times; the rest blew chunks (Note to Pulitzer Committee: Yup, it’s still firstname.lastname@example.org). And here’s the thing: I was good at it. I received scads of accolades and loads of compliments about my work, and I won far more than my fair share of competitively bid projects—most with very narrow 1-3 percent margins between myself and second.
But it never seemed to be enough—at least for those signing my paycheck. In fact, each time I “won” a bid, I still always somehow managed to feel as though I’d lost. For many years I thought it was me, but over the course of time I had the opportunity to compare my experiences (and this feeling) with those of other estimators whose paths had crossed with mine, often at conventions or seminars.
It was striking how similar our stories turned out to be. It was also telling that the moral of virtually every one of these tales centered back to one consistent yet chilling conclusion: Cost estimating was an occupation where skill, dedication and ability are invariably rendered meaningless due to the job itself. Or more accurately, due to a complete lack of understanding and wholly unrealistic expectation by management regarding the job itself.
Five Reasons to Never Ever Become a Construction Estimator
What exactly do I mean? Well, this is one of those things best explained though example, so for those of you considering a career in construction estimating, here are five reasons taken from my own experience why you may seriously reconsider that assistant manager position at your Uncle Scooter’s muffler shop.
1. Deadlines. With the possible exception of news reporting, it’s hard to imagine an occupation centered more around rigid deadlines. Everything has a shelf life. There are no grace periods, no do-overs and no excuses that work. If the deadline for bid is Thursday at 2 p.m., you will have the bid form completely filled out and you will have included all unit prices, affidavits, bonds, subcontractor lists, breakdowns and minority reports and (my favorite) alternates (note: a few years back, I had a city hall bid that had been released only 6 days prior to bid date and contained 52 alternates. I called the architect to complain, but miraculously he just “didn’t understand the problem.”
Understand that NO one will care if you have four other bids, 11 change orders and three budget proposal letters to get out in the same week, and keep in mind that it will be irrelevant if you have a 103-degree fever, your wife is in labor or your systolic just topped four digits. The bid WILL be submitted. And this might explain why you seldom see older estimators. They’re all dead. Their lives have been so centered around inflexible and (in some cases) unreasonable deadlines that it inevitably began to take a toll on their health. Life declined. Happiness, contentment and sanity soon followed until all that was left were a small group of eye-witnesses describing him as “a quiet, loner … kept mostly to himself” to eager news reporters after the most recent tragedy.
2. Your Boss Has No Idea (And Doesn’t What to Know) What You Do. Our boss needs a name. Let’s call him “Chip.” Chip understands the general premise: You, the estimator, magically conjure up projected costs for complicated, expansive and often poorly designed building projects, and in this cost you will include all materials, labor, equipment, office overhead, site requirement costs, taxes, labor burdens, insurances/bonding fees and pretty much any/everything that could possibly generate cost for the project. Easy.
Once you’re through with that (“the boring Tinker Toy® part,” Chip calls it), you add just enough profit for Chip to buy—Jet Skis. You see, Chip loves Jet Skis, at least for right now. Chip has also loved ATVs and before that snow mobiles, plush motorhomes, Buck’s box seats, vintage Mustangs and a 3,200-square-foot mansion on Lake Sacajawea that he calls his “little getaway cabin.”
But it’s not like he doesn’t share his good fortune with those around him. He benevolently parks each and every new Jet Ski he purchases in a long proud row back in the warehouse for all to enjoy. The skis are lined up like ducklings obediently following in the wake of the mama duck except in our case the mama duck is a $55k carbon-composite bass boat with duo live-well, digital depth-finder and custom smart-trailer. All of these are blocking access to the tool bin.
But this isn’t even the best part. Oh nay, nay. You see, at the very same moment all of Chips toys rest in gaudy display back in the warehouse, Chip is in his office somberly immersed and diligently pecking out (with what can only be described as an “absolutely Olympian-level lack of awareness as to the irony”) an ominous, damning memo to staff regarding their unexplainable lack of office morale. (Yes, this actually happened, and no, it’s simply not possible to make up something so perfect).
But perhaps I’m being hard on Chip and it’s true, Chip may or may not ever learn your name. It’s not important—to Chip. Keep in mind too that he also does not need to know every petty detail about what it is you actually do (besides, math is hard and makes him sleepy), so don’t bog him down with silly details. Remember, Chip is the big picture guy. He’s the company vision, the guiding beacon and the founder’s previously unemployable son. And it’s selfish of you to waste his valuable networking (drinking) time.
3. Bid Day. Unless you have experience dismantling bombs or were Donald Trump’s press secretary for anything over two minutes, you likely can’t fully understand the horrific chaos and unbridled carnage that we in the building industry refer to as bid day. Bid day was created by Satan, wrapped by Ed Gein and delivered by the Federal Express® guy who retires at 5 p.m. today and could really not care any less about whether your package absolutely, positively gets there on time.
Bid day is a special, magical day in an estimator’s life when he once again realizes that although the complicated plans, specs and addenda (known as the “bid package”) have been out on the streets for three weeks now, the subcontractors and suppliers (who are absolutely crucial to our estimator’s final number) are just getting around to cracking open the documents for the first time. This generally occurs about mid-morning for a 2 p.m. bid.
Our estimator (which could be you) is now left with just a handful of fleeting hours to receive, qualify, quantify, scrutinize and analyze roughly (and I’m spitballin’ here) 386,000,000 highly-suspect-because-you-know-damn-well-they-just-started-them sub/supplier bids. But we’re just getting started. You see, as it happens, this positively Quixote-esque exercise will be performed all the while your caffeine-fueled and now hopelessly wired boss (our buddy Chip) streaks manically in and out and past your office certain you’ve missed something.
Keep in mind Chip hasn’t looked at the bid documents (the smell of ink makes him dizzy), and he knows nothing about the project. He’s special. And it doesn’t hamper him from playing a key role in the overall bid effort, which is to unselfishly and without want of reward pointlessly disrupt and render impossible any semblance of a chance for you to momentarily form a train of thought. Chip says, “You’re welcome.”
But the day goes on and the deadline approaches. You tirelessly and expertly pore over scores of hastily submitted, wholly dissimilar and tragically indecipherable bids, bids that are still raining into your office via fax, email, phone and transom. You’ve performed your duties flawlessly. And then it happens: 1:38 p.m. Time to finish filling in the bid form. You’re going to make it. Right then, Chip bursts in through your door and asks for the ninth time (in an ascendingly-condescending and now ultra-high-frequency boss-voice) whether you’ve called“that-plumber-you-know-the-one-we-used-five-years-ago-on-that-thing-I’m-pretty-sure-he-was-maybe-from-Idaho”.
Forward to 1 year later: “And that’s when I stabbed him, your honor.”
4. When You’re High on a Bid. Be aware that from the moment you accept the role of construction cost estimator, your world henceforth will become defined by two events and two events only: 1—You will be high on your bid, or 2—You will be low on your bid.
Let’s first look at being high (not in the good way). In construction, being high on a bid is, well, strange. Let’s look at an example. Say the low bid for the fire station you just bid was $399,000 (which 99.9 percent of the time means that low bidder will receive the work and, seriously, don’t even get me started on that). And your bid was $399,500. Wow! Pretty good, huh? Nope. You’re high.
Now let’s introduce that the disheveled and pungently aromatic gentleman sitting next to you at the bid letting. His name is Buford Splatt of Splatt Family Builders, and he’s fresh out of county after serving a nickel for a series of B&Es. His trial made the local papers. Well as it turns out, Buford also submitted a bid for the project, except his number was $2,238,976.23 and his bid envelope was flecked in colors bearing a suspicious resemblance to popular dipping sauces found in chicken nugget meals.
And here’s the fun part (you’re really going to love this): For all practical purposes and when all is said and done, you and Buford have achieved the exact same level of success. Buford was high too, just like you! As far as the project is concerned, there is no distinction between Buford’s bid and yours. But this can’t be right. You were so close—certainly it has to mean something, right? Oh foolish, foolish reader, you haven’t been paying attention. Here’s what’s happens in real life:
You return to the office, still drenched with sweat and proud of your effort. You give the news to Chip and relate how close the margin was between first and second place. However, what Chip hears is, “I have failed you miserably because I am lazy and incompetent and why do I hate the company so much?” This theme remains cemented in his head as - for a brief moment – he remembers he’s indeed dealing with human beings so – with the same enthusiasm a kidnapper might have releasing a hostage - manages to finally give up a thoroughly unconvincing, “oh … yeah … ah, good job” before skulking back to his office where he’ll spend the rest of the day audibly sighing to no one.
5. When You’re Low on a Bid. Chip, in Chip’s mind: “OMG! You missed something critical! You missed something, I just know it and we’re doomed and now I’m going to sneak into your office after hours for as long as the project takes to build and rifle through your files because I know you missed something! But don’t ask me about it when you notice your files are messed up because I’ll deny everything if you confront me on it, and OMG, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to the compa… oh look! A Jet Ski!”
This poorly veiled sentiment will last until well after the project is closed out. The profit for the project will come in 2.5 percent higher than originally estimated. This is a good thing, of course, but understand that no one will tell you this. In fact, you will only hear about it in passing many months later at the office Christmas party after Jen from accounting has downed one too many Cosmos and blurts it out while trashing Chip. She’ll let slip (before bringing her ‘shussshh’ finger up to her lips, missing badly and knocking her glasses to the floor) that Chip told her not to say anything to you because “He didn’t want to lose any leverage come raise time.” Then Jen threw up on the ice sculpture shaped like a backhoe.
But believe it or not, this is still your best-case scenario. It’s also the one more familiar because you are good at your job and the vast majority of your projects will end up making money. On the extremely rare occasion when one of your bid projects does lose money, however, you will hear about it every day for your entire career (there will be voicemails left on weekends), and at no time will any fault whatsoever be directed at things like rotten field productivity, poor project management, administrative bungling/incompetence, acts of God or weather, unruly clients or just plain old bad luck. Not once. Nope, this “failing” will attach itself like an albatross and be featured prominently in every employee review for the remainder of your life plus 30 days for closeout.
Closing: At Least McDonalds® Gives You a Cool Hat
OK, I admit I was a little hard on Chip, and maybe my experience wasn’t as dark as I’ve painted. But if I’ve embellished, it’s only to leave you properly prepared. The duties of the estimator are dry and do go largely unsung. Prolonged exposure to estimating can turn a lovable cad into a somber cynic in less time than it takes to click “skip” on a YouTube® ad. But there are good moments. There is exhilaration over winning a bid, and estimating does force you to learn the industry inside and out. And that’s pretty cool. But if you do decide to become an estimator, know going in that you will need a thick skin, a cool head and a short memory (pharmaceutical access is a plus).
You won’t be the office rock star, and you won’t amass a fleet of Jet Skis (trust me, that’s a good thing), but you will be vital to the survival of your firm. Even if your office does negotiated work in place of competitive bid, you will still prove key in closing deals by hitting pledged budgets (thereby saving the promises made by sometimes eager sales staff), and you’ll also use your value-engineering skills to salvage opportunities that may have seemed hopeless and unsalvageable. It’s all up to you. So, if you want to be an estimator, I say go for it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a deck chair waiting, and I believe I hear two Christian Brothers calling my name.
S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager in the Midwest. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.