In the late 1980s, when Accubid Systems president Giovanni Marcelli was developing his estimating software company, he bought an IBM computer with a 10-megabyte hard disk and 640 kilobytes of memory.

“At the time we bought it, the IBM folks told us we would never need anything bigger,” Marcelli said.

In 15 years, that cutting-edge equipment became a fossil. Today, anyone can own a PC with an 80-gigabyte hard drive and one gigabyte of memory, a multiplication of power unimaginable to 1980s’ industry “experts.”

Most contractors are comfortable with technology. This magazine’s 2002 Profile of the Electrical Contractor shows more than 90 percent of firms surveyed use computer workstations, laptops, personal digital assistants and/or cell phones. But that leaves 10 percent for whom “browser and server” might sound like a comedy team. If that’s you, it may be time to get with the program. If you rely on computers but suspect you haven’t realized their full potential, it’s time to scope out the new technology and perhaps make estimating faster, project management smoother.

The change could yield rewards as simple as eliminating repetitive data processing or as important as avoiding lawsuits.

The HR frontier

Brad Matthews, vice president of sales and marketing vice president for Dexter + Chaney, a Seattle construction software firm, called human resources “the next frontier.” As companies grow, so does paperwork—and software can help track employees.

A solution might be computerized job applications through document imaging or by having the applicants fill out forms on a workstation. That validates the date and time down to the minute and cuts paperwork. If the applicant is hired, an employee file is begun with the application information, which sets up payroll and other functions.

In addition, software that handles HR programs can tackle safety issues. Matthews said a good safety program affects workers’ compensation costs: He’s seen $10 million companies involved in retro programs get $25,000 to $35,000 return checks because their experience level was better for annual safety records in this single HR area.

“Talk to a contractor for five minutes about workers’ comp, and they’ll tell you what they spend in a year. It’s huge,” Matthews said.

Even something like direct deposit can be streamlined by getting rid of the dummy paychecks employees receive in the mail. Checks could be replaced with an online file—accessible by password—showing an employee’s payroll history. Saving a stamp, envelope and a few minutes of processing may sound like chump change, but Matthews said for a company with 500 employees, that adds up.

Changing habits

So what size company benefits from construction software? Matthews tentatively put the number at 100 but carefully noted that firms have different needs and wants. Any prospective buyer is welcome to check his Forefront program to see if it works for them.

Bob Coppersmith, manager of two NECA chapters in Florida, said only a few of his contractors are tech-averse, and our profile generally backs that up. Of the 90 percent who own computer hardware, roughly 70 percent use it for the Internet, e-mail, accounting and word processing, and companies that use these applications are often headed by college-educated, younger or less-established contractors.

Coppersmith would like to see NECA set up software standards. “I get calls monthly from contractors asking, ‘What estimating package can I use? What’s going to work for me?’” he said.

He also thinks contractors place too little emphasis on office personnel. A well-equipped, tech-savvy staff can save time and money. Nancy Callahan, who works in his office and calls herself a “quasi, third-party benefits administrator,” is developing a program to help contractors use electronic means to process their NECA paperwork.

She collects funds from about 100 contractors and ensures they’ve complied with their contracts. After she processes that information, individual employees get proper pension, health and apprenticeship credits.

Seventy-five percent of that information is submitted on paper, and Callahan wants that changed. She’s spoken to individual contractors and hopes to set seminars with their office staff.

She has found resistance with contractors who don’t want to change the way they’ve always done things. Those who didn’t have computers in school tend not to want to use them, but those in early middle age like what they see but aren’t too familiar with it. She is trying to reach the latter group “because they see the value in it, and it’s a matter of teaching them, telling them their fear is unjustified.”

“The hardest part is getting people to ... I hate to use the word change because everyone thinks it’s a change ... do what they’ve always been doing but use a different format,” Callahan said.

If her changes are implemented, bookkeepers won’t have to spend hours keying in information, calculating the benefits and the proper rates and schedules. Most of that will be done on a form sent to them. Some firms have up to 100 employees, and they won’t have to keep keying in repetitive information—name, Social Security number, address—they just key in hours and wages as they change.

“All they have to do is hit a button and e-mail it back to me,” Callahan said.

She’s also looking at electronic transfer to eliminate paper checks and wants pertinent data on a Web site, including rates and schedule information. Contractors then get a detailed look at unionization and benefits costs.

“They might find out that our health plan is less expensive than their group plan,” said Callahan.

In step with the times

Gordon Mark, whose Orlando, Fla.-area company, GMI Construction Services, employs about 80 people, is one contractor who’s not afraid of technology. The 9-year-old company does a lot of security and VDV work but also carries carpenters and painters and can put up an office or an addition. GMI has a normally reliable system, but Mark said they had a recent crash.

“Our computer was down for a day and a half and the whole world stopped,” he said.

Mark places his company’s tech expertise at “medium to high.” GMI project managers and superintendents get cells, laptops and Palm Pilots. Technicians are dispatched by Nextels.

“We can send them a text message and say, ‘Go here, do this.’ ‘You’re late. What’s going on?’... Everyone in the office works off Palm Pilots off our server,” Mark said. “If I’m out of the office for more than two hours I’ll find someplace to plug in my laptop and dial into the server and do my work.”

He also built a worktable in his Ford Expedition and totes a bubble-jet printer, 12V to 120V plug, cell and laptop. On vacation, he takes a 100-foot phone cord, portable phone—in case he wants to enjoy the balcony—and outlet splitter, which is handy in older hotels. Mark has a long drive to the office and wishes he could be more “virtual” on the highway. He hopes radio frequency communications will improve and make portable Internet cheaper.

“That’s where I think the next biggest advancement might be for all of us,” he said.

Mark calls technology “just phenomenal.” It has helped improve efficiency; but he acknowledges it has hurt people by taking away jobs.

“I don’t have a secretary; I don’t need a secretary,” Mark said. “My office doesn’t have one. Everyone’s doing purchasing or procurement, taking care of deliveries.”

GMI uses self-written programs for purchasing. Mark has looked at maintenance-scheduling software for his 47 trucks and HR software, but remains unimpressed.

“But really, you can take Excel spreadsheet, develop the key list of things and it spits it out for you automatically,” he said.

If there’s technology that can give a competitive edge, it will be an estimating package, he said. GMI looked into programs but found takeoffs were the biggest problem. Mark got a 30-day trial for E/T Software’s auto-takeoff program and thinks it’s “great.”

A good estimate

Jan Thayer, marketing vice president for ConEst Software Systems, said contractors use three words to describe their estimating needs: Easy, easy, easy. But Thayer thinks there’s often a misunderstanding about what software can do and a contractor’s expectations. Technology creates speed and efficiency, she said, but it’s not a magic pill.

“I know when we first stared, the whole concept of contractors and computers was not a marriage to say the least,” she said, adding that the acceptance of PCs has made it easier. “But you’re still selling high tech to a low-tech industry.”

Accubid’s Marcelli said computers and software aren’t intangible assets anymore. They’ve been accepted as tools that can give contractors an edge. But the ability to push a button and have an estimate done from beginning to end is a still a dream.

Both Marcelli and ConEst president George Hague don’t see removing the estimator from the equation just yet. Hague said it won’t happen in “our lifetime or even my grandchildren’s lifetime.” Computers do a lot more today but the estimator puts cost-savings ideas together, and can understand all the variables.

“Only the computer sitting on top of your shoulders is going to do that,” Hague said.

Marcelli agreed.

“At some point in the future we’re going to see a gradual reduction in effort, and we’re going to have systems that will do more with less human intervention,” he said, “but I don’t see a dramatic change in the foreseeable future.”

But Marcelli and Hague are optimistic about E/T Software’s ElectroFind automatic takeoff. E/T’s Gary Bradley said ElectroFind is a supplement to estimating software; it extracts and reads takeoff information from a digitized drawing. But you don’t need an AutoCAD program.

“A lot of people get that confused; they think you need AutoCAD capabilities to run our software,” Bradley said.

Bradley said ElectroFind cuts estimate times in half. Their Web site says: “It automatically counts and highlights all symbols specified by the user and generates reports for base/alternate bids and locations.” In addition, E/T introduced its “Measurement” feature earlier this year. It can calculate square footage of walls, linear feet of conduit or anything measurable by roll-dometer, ruler or digitizer.

Bradley said ElectroFind’s time may have come because computer hardware has converged with the software’s needs. ElectroFind requires a Pentium 4 processor and one gigabyte of memory.

“A gig of memory four years ago would have cost us $40,000,” Bradley said. “Now it’s a couple hundred bucks. We not only needed the software, we needed the hardware, too. So at this point in time, ‘Does it work?’ Absolutely. And it’s going to get nothing but better as the hardware gets better.”

Which brings us back to Marcelli’s IBM relic. Who knows what computers will do in 15 years? It’s wise to hedge your bets when it comes to the advance of technology. EC

FULMER, a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, can be reached at johnsfulmer@netzero.net.