Does Field Experience Make for a Better Construction Scheduler?

I have found my field experience as a mechanic and project manager to be an invaluable asset toward becoming an efficient construction scheduler. Of course, my background in information technology beginning in the ‘80s gave me a leg up, as did CPM scheduling experience early in my career (c. 1993). I self-taught and cultivated my CPM techniques as a project manager, and now CPM scheduling is the majority of my project control contracts. I consider myself a hybrid scheduler; with both practical (field and mechanical (hands-on)), and theoretical (programming) experience.

Back in the days of analog, I should think it would have been the exception that a construction scheduler lacked field experience. CPM schedules were done manually – an exceptionally tedious process: operations most of which modern CPM scheduling programs execute automatically. You had to know means-and-methods, production rates, and much other information esoteric to most of today’s schedulers.

Depending on the nature and complexity of a given project’s scheduling requirements – which are generally noted in Division 01 of the project specifications book, a scheduler’s background might vary. The more demanding the requirements, the higher the level of technical acumen required. A project manager with entry-level scheduling experience will invariably prepare 75% of all small scale – say <$5M works, construction schedules; because small contractors typically can’t carry a scheduler on payroll full-time, nor are their typical scheduling requirement that stringent. Not being professional schedulers, project managers are invariably hard-put to generate a high-level schedule, and largely incapable of tracking a baseline, only for lack of CPM training. That’s why many contractors turn to scheduling consultants.

I suspect contractors don’t provide CPM training to their project managers because scheduling isn’t really a project manager’s traditional bailiwick; nor does he have a lot of time to devote to the task. Nevertheless; contractors like to save money by having their schedules prepared by their own project managers. The project manager can provide front-end, or 120 day schedules to meet the soft-requirements of smaller projects. Not every contractor knows when it’s time to outsource a schedule that is too sophisticated for them to prepare in-house, and resultantly, they frequently embarrass themselves.

Conversely, large projects – such as public, state, and Federal works, e.g., DOT, DOD, with comprehensive scheduling requirements and specifications, may have several highly trained schedulers working on a single timeline. By and large, these schedulers have disproportionate technical to practical (field) experience, unlike their counterparts above: project managers who become de facto schedulers. This lack of field experience translates to disconnect between the technician and the field personnel: they frequently don’t understand each other.

Ideally, a scheduler has both high-level practical as well as theoretical (CPM modeling) experience. One step above is the scheduler who in addition to practical and theoretical prowess also has estimating experience. Perhaps he can determine durations and productivity rates. Naturally, the ideal scheduler exists only in a perfect world. Moreover, not every project needs an ideal scheduler. As I have said, small contractors tend to give schedules short-shrift by under-budgeting scheduling requirements, and delegating the task to their project managers. Indeed, many contractors severely underestimate the costs to provide schedules on projects with more rigorous requirements. That is to say, they land pretty far south of providing bona fide scheduling services to their clientele. The resigned acceptance of mediocre schedules by end-users exacerbates this practice. I believe the dearth of talent in the industry, and a general lack of clarity by end-users is the reason.

Then who is better suited to base-lining and tracking construction schedules: the technician with little field experience, or the seasoned project manager with limited IT skills? The answer depends on the context. If you ask organizations that issue certifications, they will only sanction those who pass their exams. The exams are entirely theoretical, and seldom pertain to construction means-and-methods. Thus, may 0ne may become a certified construction scheduler without ever having set foot on a construction site. I call this phenomenon a book-scheduler. Somehow, that doesn’t seem right. Accordingly, I seldom come across scheduler certification criteria in job specifications.

Technicians are largely reliant on outside input from the production team to develop and maintain project networks, whereas a scheduler with hands-on experience has the ability to visualize a project as it enfolds, and develop and maintain project networks with a minimum of reliance on outside input, or a minimum of post-preliminary refinement. The difference is evident especially when mitigation and recovery work takes place. Only the scheduler with hands-on experience can lead the charge toward mitigation and recovery. The theoretician must sit and wait to be told what he needs to do by the production team. This presents a problem for the scheduler who develops timelines before subcontractors are on-board to coordinate with.

For my money, it is the hybrid schedulers; or candidates with field experience, who can take CPM training and learn fundamentals in a relatively short time, which seem to make the most versatile schedulers. Yet they will need years of experience before they can begin to master the art. On the other hand, too few schedulers who do have field experience have enough technical background for higher-level scheduling applications and their reporting, forensic, and analytic tools. The likelihood of a scheduler with only theoretical skills expanding his hands-on experience is much less than a project manager training to become a scheduler, because the best schedulers have years of field experience that technicians will never have.

If that is so, then why aren’t there more seasoned in-house hybrid schedulers out there? It is because contractors are notoriously parsimonious when it comes to investing in training of any kind – especially for a service that they historically under-deliver. That is the primary reason I was self-taught. Until end users become more demanding in enforcing scheduling requirements, I believe the practice will be slow-to change.

Written by

Derek Graham is a Primavera 6 scheduler and schedule oversight consultant for public and private sector projects with four decades of construction industry experience. He has been an active construction expert witness in over 30 cases - both nationwide, and Federally, since 2006, when his book Managing Residential Construction Projects, was published by McGraw Hill