The 1999 Hays Montrose/Building contractors' salary guide shows estimators enjoying an average 6.9% pay rise on last year. Not surprisingly, the best pay packets are in London. A typical wage for an estimator aged 30 with five to 10 years' experience is £28 250, but this can reach £30 000. According to the guide, estimators with 15 years' experience can command salaries of up to £37 000 in the capital.
The shortage is pushing up salaries outside London, too. The North-west is also seeing high levels of work, which has been reflected in earnings. The typical rate for an estimator aged 30 with five to 10 years' experience is £24 000, but it can reach £29 000, similar to the rate in the capital. The average rate for an estimator in the North-west with 15 years' experience is £28 500, with a top rate of £32 000.
"For every estimator that comes in for an interview, we have eight vacancies registered," says Iain Dennis, regional manager for the South-west and South Wales with recruitment consultant Hays Montrose. In other words, every estimator who is looking for a job can choose from between eight. Last year, they could choose from three. Although Dennis deals only with the South-west and South Wales, other regions, such as the Midlands and North-west, tell a similar story. What has caused the dearth in job pricers? Estimators are a dying breed. The recession at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s prevented large firms taking on and training up good estimators. Now, almost 10 years on, there is an increased level of work but a lack of experienced people to price contracts. The problem is particularly acute with large jobs that contractors are unwilling to entrust to someone with limited experience.
There is also the question of image. The construction industry finds it difficult enough to attract young people. The problem is far more pronounced with the unappealing profession of tendering. Estimators suffer from the commonplace attitude that they are boring, shut away in a dark office with only numbers for company. However misguided, the stereotype is of a 50-year-old man in a grey suit who is anything but dynamic and go-getting.
Dennis believes the issue is very serious, and that the lack of estimators and the resulting increases in salary could lead to overheating. "If it has a knock-on affect for inflation, it creates a problem for the whole industry," he explains. Estimators are capable of causing a chain reaction and pushing up salaries and contract prices. In the South-east, estimators' positions have been advertised at £40 000 a year, but employers are still finding jobs impossible to fill. If no suitable candidates can be found at that price, it is easy to see how overheating can occur.
Major contractor Kier is at the sharp end of the skills shortage. Personnel manager Brian Parker echoes the Hays Montrose report. He has noticed a shortage of all the commercial trades: estimators, QSs and buyers. But Kier's policy is to take on graduates and offer them a career in the firm. "We have recruited 55 to 60 graduates this year across all disciplines. We work hard to bring people into the industry and develop them within the business," explains Parker.
Once upon a time, estimators may have been the poor relations of quantity surveyors. But, in the current climate, they are finding themselves with a financial power previously unheard of. So, if they are accused of being boring, they can cry all the way to the cash machine.