Skills You Need to Become a Construction Estimator



Laboring behind the scenes and out of the limelight, construction cost estimators might legitimately complain that they’re the Rodney Dangerfield of construction companies. “I don’t get no respect,” may be their lament, but they can take heart in this: nowadays they probably deserve a lot more than they get, and it could be on the way.

With the pressure on contractors to win not just more business but work that’s profitable, it falls to estimators to get the numbers right. But that’s a big challenge in an environment of volatile materials costs, stiff competition, increasingly tighter margins and shorter bidding windows.

As such, demand for estimators is only likely to grow. And that translates to opportunities for those with not just the right mix of skills, training and experience, but the up-front knowledge of the forces shaping the market, the educational resources available and potential career pathways.

For The Committed and Qualified, Jobs Should Be Plentiful

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that between 2010 and 2020, employment for cost estimators would grow at a faster-than-average clip, from 185,000 to 253,000, a 36 percent gain.

But Mike Alsgaard–a certified professional estimator who chairs the national education committee of the American Society of Professional Estimators (ASPE)–says that projection may be low, failing to account for attrition and the expected difficulty of finding interested and qualified people to fill their shoes.

Yet estimating has lost some of its sheen as a desirable construction job, he says. That could mean that those committed to learning it and specializing in that niche role may find an open door where those skills are highly valued, but openings are difficult to fill.

Estimating is not typically seen as a destination out of school for people with construction management degrees,” Alsgaard says. “The glory job is being a construction manager, and schools that offer construction management and technology degrees are more geared toward the bigger picture and not toward estimating.

Today, many working as estimators arrived there after gaining other types of construction experience, says Alsgaard. They learned much of what they know on the job, often having shadowed seasoned estimators, picking up some of the tricks of the trade in the process.

Art as much as science, estimating skills are typically absorbed over time as practitioners develop a sixth sense of sorts for some of the nuances involved in sizing up what it will take to bring a construction job to completion.

“Estimators have to be able to see the big picture, see what may be missing in terms of needed information and discern early on what’s worth a company making a bid on and what’s not,” he says. “You don’t want to be wasting your time putting money and time up front to go after jobs that might not be profitable.”

Sophisticated Contractors May Fuel Demand for Estimators

According to Alsgaard, contractors are all over the map today in terms of how much value they place on the estimating function and, by extension, estimators. Smaller companies eager to keep costs down and simply win jobs may put a smaller premium on quality estimating and careful bidding.

Some companies are more concerned with the construction management phase, bidding on projects at cost because they know the drawings are poor and banking on the ability to make it up on change orders,” Alsgaard says. Those change orders inevitably yield unexpected add-ons that inflate the project’s cost. “That’s often how the game is played.

But larger, more established companies tend to put more emphasis on the bidding process. They understand the vital importance of accurately sizing up work, determining estimates and assembling bids that will yield consistently profitable work that matches up well with the company’s strengths and strategic positioning.

It’s those kinds of organizations that will likely be the source of the expected job growth in construction estimating, and where specific skills, training, education and experience in estimating will be in demand.

Multiple Avenues For Pursuing the Career

The people who will be filling those jobs, replacing vacated positions and manning newly created slots that will come via growth, will come from both the organizational ranks and the freshly minted, prospective talent pool.

In the case of the former, those performing other functions in a contractor setting and eyeing estimating and bidding roles can access specialized training and certification programs. In the latter, those awarded construction management/science/technology degrees from the relatively small contingent of schools offering them have a slate of avenues.

Whether it’s sampling other construction management-related areas first and veering into estimating later, or taking dead aim on a focused job in an estimating/bidding department, construction-degreed individuals will be especially well-suited to specialize in estimating.

More importantly, classroom training and a bachelor’s degree–especially one in construction–will be in high demand from leading firms in the ever-more professionally demanding construction field.

Four-Year Degree Programs are the Foundation

The Construction Technology and Management curriculum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI, offers three related four-year degree tracks, including construction management.

A student in that sequence, which is among those accredited by the American Council for Construction Education and catalogued on the ACCE website, gets a dose of estimating training, as well as grounding in scheduling, contracts and overall project management. Graduates leave prepared to embark on the applied learning phase managing the top-to-bottom construction process, the university says.

Estimating’s part of the larger construction management picture is clear when looking at the coursework that’s part of construction degree programs. At the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, just two focused estimating courses are included in the roster of some 65 construction-related classes offered. That makes sense, of course, as broad knowledge of construction materials, designs, mechanics, contracts and management all flow into the estimating and bidding function.

The introductory estimating course covers basic theory and practice elements like proposal solicitation/preparation, estimate types, bidding strategies, computer usage and even ethics. An advanced course delves into error correction, productivity accounting, risk adjustments, pricing techniques and mark-ups. Mock bidding competition is also included.

Alternative Education Paths for Estimators

In addition to four-year degree programs, continuing education and certificate programs can be the source of basic grounding and skills enhancement in construction estimating.

The professional certificate in construction estimating curriculum at San Diego State University consists of six courses geared to knowledge essential to the task. The strictly online format is designed to give an overview of basic and advanced construction estimating and bidding principles to those looking for practical job skills, specific techniques and a springboard to the next career rung.

Taught by a seasoned estimator, the courses meet online for 10 weeks. Estimating and Bidding I and II are supplemented by courses on construction materials, blueprint reading and essential construction math.

At The University of Washington, a Professional & Continuing Education course, Construction Estimating, is one of two construction management courses needed to attain a Certificate in Construction Management. The online course is heavy on hands-on experience, with coursework leading to the preparation and submission of a mock bid.

Prerequisites for the course are familiarity with construction methods and materials and the ability to navigate blueprints and specification documents, both considered estimating and bidding essentials.

In fulfilling its multi-dimensional role as the organization that represents the estimating profession, ASPE offers a comprehensive slate of online educational resources, some of which are the basis for obtaining certification. In addition to estimating and bidding, other courses cover blueprints, construction materials, scheduling, contract law and green building standards.

Special Mindset and Adaptability = Estimating Opportunity

While classroom-style education is indispensable for learning the core fundamentals of construction estimating, ultimate success in the field is also a function of individual temperament and strengths. Some of the personal characteristics and skills that might predict success in the estimating field include:

  • Strong math skills, particularly in disciplines like trigonometry.
  • Attention to detail, while also being able to see the forest for the trees.
  • A competitive streak, and a desire to continuously learn and improve one’s skills.
  • Comfort with technology, especially 3-D modeling and estimating software.

The successful construction estimator of tomorrow will have to strike a balance of sorts, Alsgaard says. With one foot firmly placed in the future, practitioners will have to be absorbing the traditions, customs and the “feel” of estimating, conveyed largely through contact with old-school estimators who are leaving the profession.

But just like their forerunners, and in spite of estimating’s elevated importance, newcomers will have to labor in relative obscurity, content in the knowledge that every construction job starts with a bid.

Thumbnail image from USACE HQ.

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