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Looking for Mr. Goodbid, Part 2

In the last issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, we responded to some feedback from readers and explored the proposition of hiring a new estimator. It seemed intuitive that developing a set of hiring criteria would be a good starting place, and so I made some suggestions in that regard that included length of experience, track record, familiarity with the relevant scopes of work, depth of management background, technical skills and market knowledge. Of course, this is only a fundamental list of possible qualifications that can be useful as a basis for developing a more comprehensive collection of criteria that may meet the need.

We also raised the issue of time frames, as urgency is bound to be a critical factor for many prospective employers in their decision to hire. As previously stated, the time frame for filling a vacancy can range from “someday” to “yesterday.” Of course, my suspicion is that “yesterday” is the most common scenario, as most employers will put off the hiring process until it becomes inevitable, thus creating their own urgency. This presents a serious dilemma because hiring a new estimator is a pivotal move, one that deserves the needed time for serious contemplation and a thoughtful weighing of all the many factors.

There are several good common-sense stop-gap solutions to this dilemma, including a search for temporary outsourcing. I am familiar with a number of reputable estimating services that utilize the most common and current estimating software programs, do a thorough takeoff, meet the “must-have” time limits, and assist in pricing and proposing. These services can be found online or in trade magazine ads. Fee structures vary from a per-hour basis to a percentage of the bid value.

Another good temporary remedy is to hire a part-time estimator or an estimating consultant on a subcontract basis to pick up the slack while you deliberate filling the vacancy in a more permanent manner. Recently retired estimators who are looking for supplemental income may prove a good source for this approach.

Then there is the old reliable stand-by: tap your project management department for some estimating help while you mull over creating a new position in your estimating department. Although I have, on a number of occasions, filled this column with sage advice against estimators and project managers playing the dual role, the rule should not be so inflexible as to disallow some temporary relief back and forth when it’s necessary.

I suggest these stop-gap approaches to afford the needed time to ponder all the various considerations that enter into the critical hiring process. But by the same token, they may prove to provide just the right level of supplementary help you need to actually stave off creating a new position until you feel the move is more securely justified. Activity may seem on the upswing, but judging from the economic turmoil we’ve just passed through, certainty is at a premium, and prudence is a word that has earned some newfound respect in our industry.

But if you must hire a full-time bean-counter, I would advise that your next effort be put into developing a very specific job description. At first brush, this may sound like a duplication of the list of hiring criteria that you compiled earlier. In fact, some of it will be derived from that compilation of desired qualifications, but where your original list helped you verbalize what you are looking for in a candidate, this job description will communicate to your prospective hire what a day in the life of an estimator at “Wonder-Wallboard Interiors” will be like. This list should clearly define anywhere from 12 to 20 priority requirements that you will have of your new estimator, including your scope of work, type of software, projected bid volume and expected procurement levels, proposal format, how you approach material pricing, level of interaction with clients, interfacing with accounting software, degree of involvement with bidding agenda and so on. Keep in mind that your objective here is to glean candidates with a very narrow skill set from a huge pool of hungry construction management types, so specifics are essential, as is clarity. Make it perfectly clear that each and every one of these items is a minimum prerequisite to even be considered for the position. Remember, if you cast a wide net, you’ll find yourself dealing with half the unemployed population of the country.

Once you’ve developed your itemized job description, you’ll next decide what outlets you will use to conduct your search. Newspaper and trade magazine ads can be effective, if placed strategically. Online placement services, some of which are exclusively construction trade oriented, will publish your job description on the Internet, and will also give you access to a large database of candidates that you can search by key qualifications. Perhaps the most expensive approach, but maybe the most effective, involves contacting construction management recruiters—”head hunters,” in the vernacular. The advantages to this option are several. They tend to be focused on specific fields and have some knowledge and expertise in the area. They subsist on their reputation for filling vacancies with qualified individuals who they pre-screen and match with your specific needs. Bottom line: They save you a lot of time and effort, and they minimize your risk of hiring a loser. Downside: They tend to be pricey. Oh well, you get what you pay for.

So there you have my take on hiring an estimator. Obviously, it’s not without its difficulties, but given its due consideration, the outcome can be most rewarding. And just incidentally, it does my heart good to hear that the demand is up for our peculiar skills. Doesn’t it make you feel special?

Vince Bailey is an estimator at E&K of Phoenix.

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