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Aspire to Greatness. Be an Estimator.

It was sometime early last spring that I was given the opportunity to do a little public boasting about my vocation and a chance to perhaps recruit some future bidmeisters.


A little background: The forum was Career Day for Ms. Lane’s fourth-grade class at Lowell Elementary School. I was there at the behest of my eldest granddaughter, Sedona, as her parents were both down with the flu. No great loss. My daughter is an inspector for the health department and her husband is a cop. Now, I don’t think my son-in-law’s stories about busting down bad guys’ doors or my daughter’s juicy secrets about which restaurants in town are health offenders can hold a candle to a stem-winding tale of a scope review meeting, right?


Anyway, the morning of the presentation, I was excited. I had downloaded a small TI job onto a borrowed laptop for the demonstration, and I walked into the classroom confidently, right on time and ready. At least I thought I was. After fiddling with cords of the projector, the screen remained blank. Maybe the projector needed to warm up like the old cathode-tube TV sets. I started my spiel waiting for my takeoff page to appear.


“Construction estimating is a fine vocation to aspire to, if one has the aptitude and fortitude to step into its ranks,” I stated at the outset, quite proudly. Twenty-one 10-year-old faces instantly went blank—eyes vacant, slack-jawed. Sedona’s eyes were like obsidian saucers, and Ms. Lane shot me a look that said, “This isn’t a symposium at MIT.”


“OK, I continued, “What I mean by that is it’s a good job to have if you’re creative enough to understand what symbols represent, and logical enough to give those symbols a value. But if you’ve got what it takes, it can be fun and exciting. I think I can show you a lot better than I can tell you.”


Ms. Lane nodded approval, but I was now unnerved by the persistence of the blank screen. I sat at the laptop and stared at the deadness of it. A murmur ran through the classroom.


“You have to turn the laptop on!” someone called rudely from the back. I think it was Sedona. Ms. Lane subtly reached over and pressed the power-on button with a condescending smile. The screen lit up. “I always use a desktop,” I explained weakly with hands raised in submission. After all, anybody can get befuddled by unfamiliar equipment.


I quickly paged to the floor plan and tried to begin my explanation. “We’re looking at this project drawing through what we call a takeoff program. This is the floor plan of a …”


“Is it a blueprint?” someone shouted out. “It looks like a blueprint.”


I glanced at Ms. Lane for direction.


“The children are curious—they like to ask questions. Is that OK?”


“Of course it is,” I agreed heartily. “Nothing formal about this presentation.”


What a mistake.


After explaining that drawings now came digitized, I backed up to define a takeoff program: “A takeoff program helps us to identify and distinguish certain construction conditions that appear on the plans and allows us to assign a measurement to them.”


Dead silence. I was losing them again. I quickly created a wall condition, assigned it a height and infilled a wall segment with the typical dark blue. I was briefly pleased at a few oohs and aahs, but nothing to diminish the sense of dread that was building.


“Are there other colors?” they all chimed in.


“Of course,” I answered, “That is how we distinguish one condition from another,” and I began to show them examples of all the various colors and shapes and patterns that the program had to offer because, it finally occurred to me that at their age, that’s the most they could understand, at least most of them. I’d taken up a concept that was way too complex for my audience, or too complex for me to explain it on their level, and I was now taking a serious drubbing for it. I was diminished to answering questions like “Why don’t they make two-tone colors or fuzzy caterpillar lines?” or “Why not bat-wing shapes or Darth Vader shapes? That would be cool.” One little girl suggested a Spiderman web pattern for “sticky ceilings” (?). So, in addition to debasing myself to the lowest levels, I had reduced our marvelous takeoff tool to a drawing program—a sophisticated Etch A Sketch which, according to them, lacked sophistication. I’d barely opened the estimating side of the program when the period, mercifully, ended. Ms. Lane allowed me to reclaim some of my dignity by asking me why I like my profession.


“It’s because we draw these lines and count these symbols to convince people with money that they can afford to build their projects. So we estimators are a vital link in a chain of people who build schools, churches, hospitals, gymnasiums and all the buildings that make our lives better. And as if that wouldn’t be enough,” I added, “every time we win a job, we create jobs that keep families together and pay for houses and food and clothes and cars. Hey, for me that’s just the greatest thing you can do, and it makes me proud of my job and my colleagues.”


Sedona came to my side after class to assure me that the presentation was fine. “Better than mom’s would have been.”


“Better than your dad’s?”


“Let’s not push it.” She often reminded me of the character, Lily, from “Modern Family.”


“I was wondering, Grandpa,” she added coyly, “if you could bring your laptop over to our house sometime and show me more. I like drawing, and I’m good at math.”


I stooped down and gave her a big grandpa hug. ”You can count on it, honey.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.

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