Are construction managers cost effective? And what should their role really be?

Construction is and always will be hard work. As we grow older, our knees creak, our backs stiffen and our bodies ache in the morning. The goal for many a construction worker is to get off the roof into a middle management job. A white hat, cell phone and a new pickup truck are as close to heaven as Joe Hardhat might get while working on this old earth. But are construction managers cost effective? And what should their role really be?

Many middle-management positions have been eliminated in numerous other industries. Construction has been slow to follow. The dream of getting off the roof and riding in a shiny new pickup may be playing a heavy emotional role in keeping that dream alive. Maybe a construction manager or superintendent is the right choice for your organization or maybe it’s not. Let’s consider some facts and points of view:

Your company size. The size and type of organization you have certainly helps dictate whether a construction manager is the right choice for you. If you only run two crews, employing a $40,000-a-year construction manager may not be a good financial choice. You could pay your foremen $5 an hour more (which is approximately $10,000 a year) and still be $20,000 ahead of the game. If you have 5 crews, the cost per crew for the same $40,000-a-year construction manager drops to $8,000 per crew, and with 10 crews you are down to $4,000 per crew.

As smaller companies grow, the stress mounts. There can be a tendency to simply add bodies to the equation and to desperately obtain some management help. One strategy is to take your best foreman and make that person construction manager. This may or may not be a good strategy. Not only are you losing your best foremen, but if the company is struggling, you have also just increased overhead by $40,000 in an unprofitable company.

Your sales philosophy: If your salespeople take the time to write down a little more detailed and cleaner material list and job details during the estimate; ordering materials and managing the job are much easier. A digital camera and some photos can also have a huge impact on communication. If salespeople simply throw the estimate together, then the material must be re-taken off and other details carefully put together by a construction manager or administrative person.

Your job description: What do you want the construction manager or superintendent to do? How often do they visit jobs? How do they allocate manpower? Do they do the scheduling? Are they required to visit each job each day or do they just visit the more technical jobs or jobs at critical times such as start-up? How much training does the construction manager do?

The reality of the job: If you have a construction manager or superintendent, what are they really doing all day long? I challenge you to have this middle manager keep a time card on him and see what he is actually doing all day long. If he spends too much time riding from job to job, aren’t you really paying for a lot of road time? How about the supply house? Does he go in and pick up materials? If so, you may have the world’s most expensive truck driver. What about job-site visits? I bet you will find much of the time is spent babysitting foremen and correcting what a good foreman should be doing. Here is the real Catch 22: If you hire a good foreman and pay him to do his job, do you really need someone to baby-sit him?

So what are some other things a construction manager can do for you?

Repair: Most contractors get calls for repair and need someone to make those repairs. It takes a high area of expertise and also someone who can tell if what the customer actually needs is a new roof. A good construction manager can run repairs and if need be, measure jobs now and then.

Troubleshoot: Jobs are never the same. Some are harder than others. Some are bigger with the need for bigger crews and more production. Rather than have a construction manager who simply makes a milk run, you want to make sure your middle manager is on the most important job at the most important time.

Scheduling: Scheduling is always a challenge and rain certainly makes it a guessing game. Having someone schedule is a big issue, but many smaller contractors handle this by paying the lead foreman an hour or so a day overtime to make it happen. Others rely on the office manager or an admin person to help with scheduling.

Training: Certainly training can be a key job responsibility of the construction manager. There is no oversupply of good roofers and having an experienced person who can get up on the roof and show people what to do is important. But does your construction manager train people or play seagull? Many construction managers play seagull: they show up on the job, squawk, dump on people and leave. Some come from the old school and depression era and simply are not good trainers. Others are very technically competent and become upset with those who are not.

Enforce policy: A good construction manager sets down the rules and guidelines. They hire, fire and run ramrod over the organization. Yet many construction managers came from the field and have a field mentality. They want to be the worker’s buddy, not boss.

There are lots of things your construction manager can do other than act like an overgrown babysitter or truck driver but you must clearly define the duties and position. Remember, old construction workers never die; they just ride around in pickup trucks. So what can you do if you do not have a good construction manager?

Have good foremen. It is important to have a leader on the job. Someone who takes the owner’s place on the job. Someone who thinks and can run a job. Someone who will let you know in advance if you need more materials. Someone who knows the hours and goals of the estimate. Having good foremen, just like having good kids, can cut down on the role of babysitting.

Have a good system. Make sure your system works for ordering material and scheduling jobs. Hold the salesperson, foremen and administration people responsible for getting the details right.

Have the salesperson or estimator visit the job. Remember the salesperson knows what he or she sold. Also, remember that if you have a good foreman who is both production- and customer-driven, you do not need to be there everyday and every minute.

So am I against construction managers and superintendents? No, I just want to make sure you are not paying a lot of money for an overgrown babysitter and administration person. Too many organizations have the construction manager or superintendent position defined with skills an experienced roofer may not be good at. Administration details, organizational skills, computer literacy and other office work may not be the ideal job for that 40-year-old roofer looking to get off the roof. Clearly know what you want from the superintendent or construction manager and know that it will be cost and people effective.