When students begin to think about what they want to major in at college, and what career they want this major to lead them to, they don’t typically think, “I want to be an estimator!” Most of them might not even know what an estimator does; and if they do, the image is often of someone hunched over a desk, crunching numbers late into the night. If students go into the construction industry, they are usually drawn to the “flashy” areas, like architecture or BIM work.
But preconstruction is an essential component of the life of a project – it’s not just crunching numbers. It’s communicating with everyone else involved in the project such as the architects and the subcontractors, it’s hunting down the information that you need, it’s learning how to juggle multiple tools in order to get the most accurate pricing. An estimate can often mean the difference between winning or losing a bid, and in many ways, it’s the foundation of a good project.
So how can estimators change the narrative and show new graduates that preconstruction is an incredible way to impact the industry? One of the biggest ways is to change the narrative surrounding preconstruction, to get out there and let others know the benefits of pursuing a career in estimating. For example, lots of graduates choose to go to design school in order to eventually become an architect. But it will take them up to eight years to make what preconstruction hires make their first year out of school.
The other important step to take is to build stronger relationships at universities that general contractors want to recruit at, and to encourage these universities to put more of an emphasis on cross-discipline training. Oftentimes, students are so focused on their particular field of study that they do not get a chance to learn about the struggles and challenges that students in other disciplines have to go through. Matt Hammer, Chief Estimator at Haselden Construction and one of the leading voices in the industry, said that he was with a home builder for several years before transitioning into preconstruction. He was also able to bring the experience he’d gained as a project engineer to the table when he became an estimator.
“It takes a certain breed to be an estimator,” says Hammer. “We have a great rotational program for new graduates at Haselden, where participants have to spend time going through preconstruction, operations, and VDC. This program also has specific curriculum created for each stop. We’ve graduated twenty people from that program and had only one person who wanted to go into precon.” As a result, Hammer strives to look not just at new graduates fresh out of school, but also at those who have been in the field for several years. Hammer says, “We had a project manager who was in the field for twenty years, gave him an opportunity to be in preconstruction, and now he’s one of our best estimators. It helps that they already know how to build buildings – I’m a firm believer in having field experience as an estimator.”
Another important aspect to both attracting and retaining preconstruction talent is the culture that a department fosters as a team. One of the things Hammer wishes he could have told himself at the beginning of his career as an estimator was to ask more questions. “I was overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, and made a lot of mistakes because of it,” he says. “I didn’t rely enough on the people around me. I didn’t take the initiative – I didn’t raise my hand when I didn’t understand something.” It’s a great incentive for estimators when companies can offer a culture that is open to new ideas and questions, as well as programs that can encourage those qualities, such as mentorship programs.
As the industry continues to change and evolve, it’s critical for the preconstruction community to keep pace with it and to ensure that they are using the right tactics to attract the right people. It’s just as important for those in preconstruction to take it upon themselves to invest in the next generation, providing them with the resources and skills they need to continue being successful.