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PMs still need essential estimating skills

Even with the continued industry trend (perhaps because of it?) of separating the career paths, job descriptions and responsibilities of senior- level estimators and project managers, knowledge of how to accurately estimate jobs is still a very essential skill for PMs. To me, a project manager who doesnt know to accurately estimate a commercial job really doesnt know his trade, hes just a blow-hard

Even with the continued industry trend (perhaps because of it?) of separating the career paths, job descriptions and responsibilities of senior- level estimators and project managers, knowledge of how to accurately estimate jobs is still a very essential skill for PMs. To me, a project manager who doesn’t know to accurately estimate a commercial job really doesn’t know his trade, he’s just a blow-hard faker. He can often get away with it for a surprisingly long time.

Eventually he encounters his first real problem job. Then he has to know how to visualize from the plans, then pick the job clean and do a decent estimate to find out exactly where the problems lie. Boy-oh-boy, is he in trouble then!

Contrary to popular belief, while the mindset and genetic-predisposition for being a good estimator is generally different from what makes a good PM, that’s not always true. To be an estimator you don’t need to be as anal retentive as Sigmund Freud nor as detailed- oriented as Sherlock Holmes nor as math-centered as an Einstein Junior, but you do need a toolbox set of certain skills — and probably not what you think they are.

Phone skills are most important to being a good estimator. When an estimator is not creatively visualizing his wireframe model of a job, chances are he’s on the phone talking to suppliers, chasing down a hard-to-find material spec, negotiating with specifying engineers over a brand-name widget, begging the architect to please answer his RFI before bid day, etc.

When he’s actually in the process of doing an estimate, he should be allowed to cut his phone off so he can concentrate so he won’t make subtle or silly errors that will cost the company money. But if he’s not buried inside a set of plans, chances are he’ll be burning up the phone lines to make sure any ambiguities are massaged or erased out from the estimate. Show me an estimator who doesn’t have a professional manner and style over the phone and I’ll show you a crew foreman or field superintendent.

The ability to make “cold calls” is related to the above skill but is most definitely different.

When an estimator is working the phones to chase down info he needs, chances are he’s dealing with colleagues and acquaintances he’s known for years. But calling a total stranger, someone he doesn’t know from Adam, can make the most confident estimator nervous and tongue-tied. Coming across as such could blow the chance to make a good first impression and a good first result.

Remember that estimators, almost by default, are calling bid lists and establishing potential new client relationships for your company all the time. Like it or not, they need the training, yes, I said training, coaching, practice and practical experience to be able to create the best first impression on a new client, supplier or subcontractor that they possibly can. To do otherwise is risking future bottomline profits, if not the continued growth of your company.

And another related skill to the first two above is the talent to use Google and other online resources. It still genuinely flabbergasts me how many in our industry are technologyfearful to the point where they only take a laptop along to job meetings so they won’t look as if they’re not important enough to have one. If your entire office doesn’t have complete and unfettered access to the Internet, then you’re crippling your pre-construction productivity at minimum and keeping serious bottomline potential dollars out of your own wallet. So much of the resources that your estimator needs are online now such as catalogs, cutsheets, historical data, templates and forms, current job databases and Websites of your main customers. If they don’t have it at work, then chances are they’ll have it home just to make it easier for themselves. Nevertheless, they still need Internet access where they put in the most hours and that’s the office.

The ability to keep up with the paperwork is such a simple concept, but it is so critical in this day and age of needing complete transparency of the method of how a job was taken off and also traceability, just in case there are future questions about how the numbers were actually assembled. A filing system for paperwork doesn’t have to be complicated. All I’ve ever used myself are plain old manila folders with the job name and number (“01-007” means the first job estimated for the calendar year 2007). What needs to be present, however, is a continuing conscientious effort to put every possible scrap of paper related to the job inside a folder for present and future reference.

If you can find an estimator who lacks fear about finding mistakes after the fact and admitting to them, hire him. Fact is, everyone makes mistakes including executives, project managers or even hospital construction administrators, let alone estimators. If an estimator is working in a climate of fear where he’s walking on eggshells for fear he’ll be fired if he makes a single mistake, no matter how small, he’s not going to be productive.

Sometimes two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four but can equal six or two or 4.5 or even 666. In the end, an estimate is just that, a guesstimate based on real-world trade knowledge and experience. No matter how accurately it’s worked up in the office, it ain’t gonna be put in that way in the field. A good estimator makes certain reasonable assumptions along those lines to shave that final number to a more accurate and tighter chance on bid day.

The caché of the job as senior estimator isn’t sexy in this world of project managing everything, nor are they appreciated most times by fellow employees because they choose to become buried away in their little cramped estimating offices. Even without bonuses, perks or recognition, they continue to plow the new ground because it’s what they love to do. Finding your employment niche in life is something that few us are fortunate to have happen.

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating, and plumbing. He may be reached by calling 919-291-0878, or via email at [email protected]. His Web site is