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Opportunity Options

The future was wide open…—“Into the Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty

A number of years ago, I penned a piece here on what qualities an employer might look for in contemplation of hiring a construction estimator. I was drawing on my experience as part-owner in a mid-size commercial drywall firm and our search for a good quantifier. Back in those days, applicants were numerous, and the only challenge for a potential employer was in using the right criteria for separating the wheat from the chaff.


Nowadays, the tables seem to have turned. Some projections predict that the increase in demand for construction estimators in the next decade to be as high as 26 percent. In many regions, these abundant opportunities have already opened up, and prospective employers find themselves in keen competition with their market rivals for qualified bidmeisters. With the average duration of a construction estimator staying with a single company at about five years, there are bound to be a significant number of bidmeisters out there who are answering those voluminous emails and phone calls from frenzied headhunters. Thus, the following primer on what to look for in a lifeboat is aimed at those having serious thoughts about jumping ship.


Naturally, the first thing on the mind of those seeking greener pastures is compensation. A move should be at least lateral or positive in this regard if the criteria below are acceptable. But a good compensation package includes some consideration over and above the typical salary/benefits offered. Many outfits offer generous bonuses that have the potential to supplement a middling salary appreciably. Such added considerations come in the form of profit-sharing, formulaic incentives and discretionary bonuses. The catch is that all of these supplements depend on the profitability of the company, which is a critical condition that demands some serious research from the prospective employee in any case. A final word to the wise on this: Relying on promised bonuses as part of the salary can become the basis for a pretty disappointing Christmas. Just ask Clark Griswold.


In addition to compensation, there are a good number of non-pecuniary considerations for a prospective employee to take into account. They include stability of the company and current performance, scope and size of the business, familiarity with programs and policies, expected level of volume/success, corporate culture and opportunity for advancement.


Stability of the future employer should run a close second to compensation for the prospective hireling, as overall duration affects the sum total of compensation. Longevity is a strong indicator of stability, but not entirely. I know of a large commercial drywall outfit in the Rocky Mountain West that recently closed its doors after more than 50 years in the business. Current profitability and backlog, along with such contributing factors as burden percentage and experience modification rate (safety record) that affect an estimator’s prospects for successful procurement should be combined with longevity in determining a firm’s overall tenacity.


Familiarity breeds contentment, as I’ve stated here before, and the corrupted aphorism applies quite accurately to the new-hire candidate. Having been the newbie myself a few times, I can say from experience that the last thing you want upon starting a new job is to spend your first week navigating uncharted waters after you’ve sold yourself as a weathered expert of the trade. The situation is extremely tenuous: You’re under intense scrutiny because your new boss is watching to see if he’s made the right judgment call in hiring you, while all the time you’re stumbling and bumbling over strange programs, protocols and policies that are second nature to the veteran staff. So, experience with the same size of the firm, same scope of work and familiarity with the estimating program (software and protocols) will help the newbie not appear to be the novice.


Usually at the closing of a typical interview, after the intending employer has done his presentation of the company and after his inquisition has gotten down to the inevitable “What do you do in your spare time?” question, he will invariably ask if you have any questions for him. This is the point in which you either tell him no, that he’s covered his part quite sufficiently (if you’re no longer interested), or you pepper him with questions that break through the sugar-coated pitch he’s offered—substantive questions about burden percentage, and experience mod rate, and current clientele, and what kind of volume versus sales will be expected, how much emphasis is put on salesmanship versus nuts-and-bolts estimating, and how the production department is structured, and what kind of typical labor productions you will be working with, and the status of relationships with material supplier relationships, who does bid reviews, and what the corporate culture is like, and is there any room for advancement above the position offered. This is probably your future boss. He will either be impressed with your grasp on all that is at stake, or he will be annoyed at your audacity. Either way, you will have learned something more about your prospective employer without asking.


Granted, you can never know about all the critical conditions that might await you at a new workplace. But getting the most accurate information on a prospective employer as you possibly can, in advance, will undoubtedly help in determining if you are bettering your present circumstances by making a leap. At least it won’t be a leap into the great wide open. After all, you wouldn’t want to be a rebel without a clue.  

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

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