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Playing the Field

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”—Lennon and McCartney

I have often remarked that the most elusive factor in this business of estimating, the one most difficult to quantify accurately, is the labor aspect of a job. Calculating material requirements for a project involves little more than translating the symbolic information on a set of drawings into quantities of substance—in our case, metal studs, drywall, paint, acoustics and so on. Granted, accuracy in this process of conversion depends on how well-rendered the design documents are, and so some degree of inference and intuition must be brought to bear to fill in the inevitable gaps. But this is simply enhanced arithmetic compared to the mysticism associated with estimating rates of production. Any truthful estimator will freely confess that attempting to predict labor cost is something akin to venturing into the Twilight Zone. I have known bidmeisters who readily prefer tea leaves, tarot cards or Ouija boards to their own predictive powers when it comes to foretelling production outcomes.

As daunting as the task is, I don’t fault those of my colleagues who resort to medieval measures. But for me, there is a much more reliable consulting resource than any cackling soothsayers, visionary oracles or TV psychics, and one who is usually available and willing to advise me on these ticklish labor issues for no fee at all (well, maybe a cup of strong coffee if it’s early). He is my trusty in-house field operations manager.

Known by a number of aliases (general foreman, superintendent, production manager), he is the ramrod who runs the entire field, and he is the central repository for all of the data generated in the daily activities of all those who labor under him on all projects. It is no wonder that many commercial drywall firms require as a matter of policy that the productivity rates on all bids be reviewed by the field ops manager (FOM) before going out the door. Even those bidmeisters who do not operate under such a strict decree and especially those who have little or no firsthand field experience would be well-advised to regularly consult with their field guy on production rates for a number of sensible reasons.

He Has Experience

Obviously, his past experience and current feedback make him the best situated to know the median production rates attainable on standard assemblies with the manpower pool he is currently working with. But his primary position offers him a unique insight into a number of subtle underlying factors as well—critical variables that may not remotely occur to even the most clever quantifier whose contact with the field is otherwise limited.

For instance, the FOM recognizes transient fluctuations on productivity related to the volume of work he is performing or expects to perform. He knows that increasing the size of his manpower pool beyond a certain optimum size will result in the decline of efficient output while, conversely, if he knows he is going to complete a project where many of his most productive mechanics are employed, he can advise on better-than-average rates to secure that next project for them.

He Knows People

Similarly, the FOM’s position informs him of the strengths and weaknesses of his foremen and their relative availability and suitability to supervise effectively under certain conditions. For example, he may have a limited number of supervisors on his staff who are capable of running large, multi-scope projects efficiently, or he may have some supers who are effective on heavy-gauge core/shell projects and others who are more suited to direct tenant build-outs or renovations.

Then too, any FOM that’s worth his salt has the inside scoop on the general contractor’s approach to a project. He knows right down to the particular GC’s superintendents with regard to who coordinates the subs effectively so that optimal production is achieved on the project, who provides little or no direction, and who jumps the subs around and trade-stacks making it impossible to hit even average rates of productivity. Clearly, this information, where relevant, can have a considerable impact on productivity rates in the estimate.

He Just Knows Stuff!

Further insights that an FOM might provide an estimator include applicability of certain labor-saving innovations, effective allocation of equipment, out-of-town labor pools, loss-time demands (gate-time, badging, orientation, safety meetings) and cleanup requirements.

Another significant benefit that an estimator gains in conferring with an FOM on the labor is the buy-in effect. When the FOM participates in the labor side of the estimate, he assumes an obligation to meet or beat the rates that he predicts. It becomes a matter of professional honor.

So here’s to Rigo and Colin and Phil and Lee and Jack, and to all of the windshield cowboys who ride the range and make all of us bidmeisters look good. Without them to help guide me through the harrowing straits of labor productivities, I might be reduced to consulting with Nostradamus instead.

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

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