I thought that I was going to be an elementary school teacher, but I was too smart for education. That’s been a problem for me throughout my life and it certainly short circuited my college career.
I ended up working in a construction office working for a contractor who did underground utilities, drainage, and roadwork. I had acted the part of a receptionist in a play at school so I confidently answered yes when asked if I had experience. Since the fictional receptionist had a calculator on her desk, I sealed my employment fate when I assured them that I knew 10-key by touch.
I had no idea those lies would put me into a job that would turn into a career for life. I ended up being the payroll clerk, then the bookkeeper, and finally the estimator.
That was in 1982. Women’s liberation in south Texas was limited to women being able to work full time and go home to take care of the house and kids. Aren’t we the lucky ones? I did not know another woman who was an estimator then; I know very few today.
An estimator figures the cost of a job. It is not an exact science. I was appalled when someone called it ‘guess-timation’ but that’s what it often is. The task starts with a set of plans that can be 1 sheet or hundreds of sheets. And the estimator builds the job in her head using those plans. After getting a grip on construction sequence, the estimator starts building crews of workforce and equipment and then calculates materials.
I learned that a good estimator looks for errors in quantities and checks for abnormal variations in the plans. With zero experience in the field, I was not a very good estimator at first and undoubtably would have lost more money than I made if left to my own devices. Most estimators start in the field and have a good grip on what it takes to build a job. They have a hard time with the accounting and costing aspect of the job. I was just the opposite.
I was lucky enough to have a husband who was the best estimator I’ve ever met. In the 30 years I’ve been estimating, I’ve met a lot of estimators and that statement still holds true. He taught me how to break down the work into understandable bites, compare specifications to see the differences, check signature dates, and audit costs to see if I’d missed the mark or been close.
The good thing about estimating is that you can always find a job. My kids think that’s because I’m good at my work, but I have to let that bubble pop. Even the worst estimators that I know-people who cannot keep a driver’s license or who have to spend week-ends in jail or who couldn’t estimate their way out of a paper bag-can find a job estimating.
Here’s the rub, though. I don’t like estimating. I know it’s a good job, but the stress stinks.
Over the years, engineers have gotten less training and less practical experience. That translates into inadequate plans and specifications. Often work is unbuildable and the kid engineer doesn’t know enough to argue with you.
Governments and industries that bid work have fewer trained inspectors and contract administrators. That translates into fewer change orders. “How did you bid the work?” “To do it right, but that isn’t possible with these plans.”
And over the years, fewer young people are willing to go into construction work. That translates into an unmotivated workforce. Why work in the south Texas heat when you can get about the same amount of money in fast food?
And truthfully, despite the drawbacks, I enjoy aspects of the job. It is varied and fast paced. There is always something to learn in construction. Can the work be tedious and boring? Yes. But it can also be interesting.
I’m pretty sure that I got the career that I needed. And lacking the plans for building a time machine, I can’t undo my life and try an alternate path.
Yikes! I wouldn’t want to try to estimate the cost of that!