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I Can Manage Just Fine, Thank You

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.—Rudyard Kipling

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written on the notion that estimating and project management can be effectively combined into one role, a notion that I’ve consistently dismissed as ill-advised. In fact, a little over three years has transpired since I committed my critical thoughts on the subject to a column (“Two-fer,” August/September 2008).

My intervening silence on the matter has more to do with a reluctance to repeat topics here than for lack of relevance. And neither is the issue ever far from my consideration, as I am one of our lot who finds himself constantly alternating between management and estimating, partly due to fluctuating demand, and partly owing to my open amenability to performing in either role. A change of pace is always welcome.

Rarely, however, have I been asked to wear two hats simultaneously (seems to me as absurd in the literal sense as in the figurative), at least until recently. Obviously, I still tend toward the position, as I did three years ago, that excellence in either endeavor requires a sharp division of the two. But as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures, so perhaps it is time to consider that the specialization and division of skill sets that once made such good sense must now be reevaluated in the context of our economic environment. I guess the positive approach to this might be to say that the versatile estimator/project manager who can perform effectively in a dual role will prove to be a more valued asset to a commercial walls-and-ceilings outfit than ever before.

The economic reasons for this shift in demand are clear. As work in progress and backlog of work both diminish, so does the need for project management. Sadly, a logical downsizing avenue for subcontractor executives to travel is to eliminate project management positions somewhat drastically in response to the dearth of work. Estimators, on the other hand, are still in great demand, as the need to procure has never been so keenly felt. And in the event of a successful bid resulting in an award, executives are leaning more toward requiring that the estimator of a project tackle the management of it as well, rather than reacquire the overhead that rehiring a PM would generate. And while the dual role solution sounds good on paper (“who better to run the job than the estimator who won the job?”), many bidmeisters have been specialists for the lifetime of their careers and are likely unprepared for the sheer volume of tasks that effective project management requires (let alone the skill set developed over years of living with one foot in estimating and the other in field management).

Consider the job description of a PM: He creates budgets, which often entails performing a repeat estimate, and monitors them for overruns, implementing correctives as needed. A PM gathers product data and builds a conforming submittal package. He buys out the materials for the job and solicits pricing from labor subs if need be. A seasoned PM reviews and negotiates the contract, generates a schedule of values, creates a manpower-loaded schedule, sets up and conducts the handoff meeting to the field, generates and maintains an RFI/change log and communicates impact items to the field, sets up and maintains regular labor/material cost tracking, attends and offers insightful input at onsite meetings with the GC’s management team, pens correspondence to document project progress (or, more commonly, the lack thereof), submits (or advises on) monthly billings based on percentages of completion, and satisfies close-out requirements. If this seems like a light load that can be shouldered on a part-time basis while meeting bid deadlines, then mister you’re a better man than I.

Well, it seems that my bias is showing again, and I’m blatantly contradicting my own premise that the dual role may be a palatable notion, given the times. But with specialization going the way of the Edsel, I just can’t help thinking that we’re losing a measure of excellence in our profession when we blend skill sets and blur the line between estimating and management.

Or maybe, in spite of these lean times, the twain should never meet. I personally think Kipling really had something there.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.

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