A day in the life of a project manager

March 1, 2010
Project management authority H. Kent Craig takes you through a typical day of a project manager.

Big breakfast at McDonald’s at 6:00 a.m. Some time to relax and read the newspaper before heading down I-55 to the jobsite office trailer. A lifetime in project management and I’m still not used to getting up so early so I can be there when my guys start coming in. I’m the first one in, the last one out.

I’m stopped at a traffic light, wondering if Doug appreciates the old magazines I have given him and my big old cast-metal Ridgid tubing cutters I’m loaning him, so he can work. He’s a good guy if an average superintendent with an expensive, if worthy, hobby (protecting endangered species) that soaks up his paycheck each week. Are project managers without a P.E. or MBA after their names an endangered species too?

At the jobsite, the guys mill around in the thick dark fog outside the Conex storage container. I gently encourage them to quit drinking coffee, gather their materials and go to the site. I know most of them basically like me, but it’s not my job to be liked. Having had a 150% turnover in eight weeks since I was handed these side-by-side, same-site problem jobs, I can’t help but think that maybe fear sometimes works hand-in-glove with respect. Overmanned by orders from the main office, I wonder if they will even notice when I put the weakest pup to sleep.

Cliff, the general superintendent for the project’s general contractor, is too busy doing his window take off for the middle school project to chat with me this morning. I’ve been playing geek guru to him, so he can buy a new computer, and planning to give him lots of free lessons on company time (both of ours), so he can lose his computer illiteracy. Like everything I do in this life, I have more than one reason for doing so. He’s a nice guy and over the course of the job we’ve become more than acquaintances but less than friends, so far. But even if he was a real jerk, which he’s not, I’d still tutor him just to earn brown-nose points and hopefully add something to the job’s bottom line.

The elementary school job meeting is boring as usual, but boring can be nice, especially when you’re not being yelled at because you’re behind schedule or one of your guys has royally screwed up. The middle school job meeting is simultaneously more relaxed, yet more formal than the elementary school project meeting, as it always is. It makes a difference when job principals are more experienced and self-confident. The architect’s rep and the owner’s rep get into an argument about using black and white as the school’s primary color scheme. The architect says, “Absolutely no one here is wearing a solid white or black shirt or pair of pants!”

I can’t help myself when I’m handed a set-up line like that. Nodding toward his light orange golf shirt, I say, “Well, Paul, your shirt was white before you did your own laundry while your wife was out of town!” Everyone in the room cracks up.

After the meetings, back in the jobsite office trailer, I can’t help but think about letting one or two of my least-productive guys go. They’re good guys, just not “real” mechanics, and with a tightly bid job I need real mechanics that can pull their own weight to put this stuff in. My real plumber, whom I had promoted to superintendent for the middle school project, is becoming more and more comfortable each day in his new role. He has his shot to prove himself and work his way further up the ladder now — good. This is what I enjoy doing as much as anything — teaching and mentoring.

Earl, the overall superintendent for both schools, comes in to ask a question about the elementary school that he’s personally taken charge of. It’s late in the day and his 63-year-old knees are aching a lot. The dog-eared pages of the project plans on the table are flipped through one final time for the day. It’s my anniversary — the job can and will wait until tomorrow for my further attention. Time to go home!

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via email at [email protected].

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