Survey Says: Estimators Still Lean On Excel

May 17, 2018 Conley Smith

Conley Smith, Sr. Business Writer

As always, the annual JB Knowledge Construction Technology report (2017) is chock-full of fascinating details. Translation: it’s pretty long at 70+ pages! Designed to take a deep dive into the spending habits and tech trends in the construction industry, it lives up to its reputation and then some. Not to worry, we’ve saved you the trouble by picking out some of the key highlights.

Main takeaway? It paints a picture of an industry still relying heavily on spreadsheets, manual entry, and software that lacks integration. It also details an aging workforce of Baby Boomers getting ready to retire and make room for younger workers. It shows how contractors are ramping up their IT staff—even as some companies choose to outsource IT.

Estimators Tell the Story

The No. 1 role reported in the 2017 survey? You guessed it—estimator—followed by CFO, vice president, controller, and project manager. JB Knowledge works hard to include a broad spectrum of professionals (1,974) with job titles ranging from consultants and architects to industrial construction managers and residential builders.

In fact, estimating or project management tied as the most frequently reported job title in 2017 with each title fetching 24% of responses. This is a big departure from 2016, which featured mainly accounting and executive responses. No doubt, this makes these findings even more interesting!

Also, the majority of those surveyed work for companies that have been in business for more than 50 years. As in previous years, over 50% of respondents were born between 1960 and 1979. The number of respondents born before 1960 has decreased (18.7%) while those born after 1980 (28.7%) has increased. There was also a growing number of female respondents—22.3% this year compared to 20.6% in 2016.

Spending on Construction Tech Increases

This year’s report included hard-hitting questions for construction companies on technology workflows, solutions, and spending. Of particular interest, the report showed a larger percentage (21.8%) of respondents spending 1% of their annual sales volume on IT— an increase over 14.1% in the 2016 survey. In addition, the number of respondents spending less than 1% of their sales volume on IT dropped to 46.4% in 2017 compared to 55.9% in 2016.

Another interesting point: more than 30% of the companies reported outsourcing a portion of their IT spending. While this means they can more easily scale resources, it also makes room for a Construction Technologist role. Such a specialist would centralize and manage priorities and process for stronger ROI. There was also some good news in that 35.7% of the companies in the survey increased their IT staff this past year—compared to 31.7% in 2016.

Spreadsheets Outnumber Software

For the first time, the survey asked questions around workflows to learn about the processes construction companies are using to complete construction projects. The questions were aimed at determining how contractors are maximizing efficiency and minimizing risk.

Respondents said the workflows most dependent on software were:

  • Accounting (85%)
  • Estimating (60%)

The workflows most dependent on spreadsheets flipped the results with respondents saying:

  • Estimating (70%)
  • Accounting (59%)

In fact, 71 percent of estimators reported they still rely on spreadsheets. This begs the question: why are so many construction workflows relying on both spreadsheets and software? They concluded companies could be using spreadsheets as a way to transfer data between software solutions or there could be issues with data entry and reporting in the software programs.

Fewer Solutions, Less Integration

Perhaps the most interesting results surround the number of software solutions in use and how contractors are using them. First off, the average number of software solutions in use continued to decline—from six or more in 2012 to only two in 2017. While on the one hand, you could assume that many popular software solutions are integrating features, making additional software unnecessary. However, 30% of this year’s respondents said “none” of the applications they use integrate—a 10% decrease since 2012.

It would seem if more and more contractors are opting to use fewer solutions, data integration will have to become a bigger priority for the construction industry. When asked “How do you transfer data when applications don’t integrate,” nearly 50% said manually and another 42% said “with spreadsheets.”

In the report, JB Knowledge concluded that contractors are underestimating the importance of integration in their software solutions. On the other hand, the survey noted that manual data entry declined for the first time—though by less than 1%.

Perhaps the most humorous comment included in the report: “We LOVE manual data entry. Our estimating to operations project turnover files look like someone put a copy of Tolstoy’s War & Peace on a copy machine and hit 500 copies. Then it’s up to the PM to digitize.”

Making BIM a Priority

Asked if their construction business had a BIM department, a shocking 28.1% responded they “don’t bid on projects involving BIM.” However, 27% of respondents reported having a dedicated BIM/Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) department.

The biggest stumbling block to BIM? Survey says: the lack of capable VDC labor, the lack of buy-in on BIM workflows, and the unreasonable time restraints on coordination.

Of those with a BIM department, 25% of those surveyed were not making BIM a priority with only one or two construction workers trained on it. Of those using BIM, 63.5% are using it for clash detection/coordination issues and 47% for project planning.

Experts predict U.S. builders will fall behind because they lack an experienced pipeline of BIM staff to meet future demand. Another interesting trend: once companies hit $20 million in sales volume they are more likely to have a dedicated VDC department.

The potential impact? JB Knowledge suggests outsourcing BIM projects or getting staff trained ASAP. If BIM standards are imposed in the U.S. like in the UK, many construction firms will lose work if they aren’t prepared to meet the inevitable future demand.

Management Resistance Holding Back Contractors

Perhaps the most interesting answer in the survey surrounded obstacles to adopting new technology. Management reluctance continued to be a leading reason cited—it has continued to increase since 2014. The participants in the survey view themselves as “very comfortable” with new tech—but a lack of IT staff and employee reluctance were still cited as issues preventing them from investing in new technology.

Many contractors take the first step with takeoff and estimating software so they can begin to leave manual processes behind. In 2017, On-Screen Takeoff was listed as the top takeoff tool with 41.5% of survey respondents—beating out 14 others in the takeoff software category. Ready to stop triple-checking spreadsheets? Efficient, unparalleled, and trusted – On-Screen Takeoff makes it easier to bid and win more work in less time. Get the free trial and see for yourself how easy and fast takeoff can be.


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