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What Does a Construction Superintendent Do?

A construction superintendent oversees every aspect of a building project.
Materials for construction.
A man working on a construction project.
A construction project.
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  • Originally Written By: Ken Black
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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A construction superintendent oversees every aspect of a building project, starting with basic proposals and worker agreements and ending with final inspections and, in many cases, reports to owners or investors. Most superintendents have experience as construction workers and from time to time they may actually help with physical building projects. The bulk of their job is in organizing and managing, however, which makes training in business administration and leadership quite valuable.

Basic Job Description

Superintendents in many ways function as bosses for building sites. It is their responsibility to make sure that projects are completed on schedule, within budget, and in a way that is safe and follows local building codes and laws. There is a lot of paperwork, particularly when it comes to things like building permits and licensing materials, but the job also requires significant personal interactions. Most superintendents are in charge of both making teams and resolving conflicts large and small.

Relationship to Project Managers

The superintendent’s job is done from the building site, which means that he or she is physically present for all parts of the construction process and is on hand to answer questions the moment they arise. In most cases this person works from a temporary office, often in a portable trailer or, for smaller projects, a company car.

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Presence at the site is one of the biggest differences between construction superintendents and project managers. In other respects these two professionals have similar responsibilities, particularly when it comes to managing things like scheduling and budget concerns, and in nearly all cases the two work together, one on the ground and one in a larger corporate office, in order to see a project through to completion. The easiest distinction is probably where angle is concerned. Project managers focus on the ramifications of whatever is happening at the site, including making initial bids and selecting the project in the first place. Then, the superintendent makes sure that things are going smoothly, and manages day-to-day execution.

Selecting the Team

Hiring subcontractors and laborers is one of the first things a construction superintendent will do once he or she has been assigned to a project. This often starts with advertising the job in construction circles, and usually also includes interviewing candidates and reading through bid proposals. Once the superintendent has selected a team, he or she is in charge of assigning members tasks, briefing them on the work to be done, and giving them a schedule or roster of duties.

Importance of Scheduling and Timing

Nearly all construction projects are designed to be completed within a certain time frame, and the superintendent is typically the person responsible for breaking the project down into more manageable “chunks” and organizing the workforce so that things will get done on schedule. Sometimes this is as simple as instructing a house building team to start with the framing, install the cabinets, then work on the drywall; the larger the project, though, the more complicated scheduling becomes. When things fall behind, whether due to unexpected weather delays, problems with workers, or supply shortages, the superintendent is usually the one who must make adjustments so that things will stay on track.

Budget Concerns

Keeping building projects within budget is another challenge for superintendents. Sourcing supplies is one of the biggest parts of this, but managing labor costs also factors in. The superintendent has to figure out how many people to hire so that he or she has enough workers when there is a lot going on but isn’t paying for labor that isn’t needed during lulls. This part of the job often requires a lot of pre-planning and intense calculation. Going over budget is sometimes inevitable, but it can make a superintendent look bad, which in turn can negatively impact how often he or she is given more work in the future.

Availability

Depending on the nature and scope of the project, working hours may be somewhat irregular. In most cases, the superintendent must be largely available throughout the duration of a given project, which often means that he or she will have to work long hours, in most cases including weekends. There tend to be periods of high intensity matched with times where things are more relaxed. The person in this position must usually be flexible, particularly during very busy periods.

Accountability

Superintendents are almost always accountable to someone higher up, but who this is varies greatly depending on the project. A simple house remodel is usually headed by an executive in a private construction company, for instance, but a contract to construct a government office or build a major industrial park may necessitate answering to a series of higher authorities. Any time these people have questions or concerns, they address them to the superintendent. The job does not usually end when the building project is finished, either, as various briefings and reports are usually required before things can be wrapped up.

In most cases, a written report showing receipts and providing a brief analysis of how the project was executed is sufficient, but more can be required. Some superintendents make presentations at board meetings and give oral reports to building company executives. A person with this sort of expertise may also be called to consult on future projects, often providing analysis about what is or is not feasible within certain time or budgetary parameters.

Getting the Job

Most construction superintendents are hired internally, which means that they already work for a construction company or consulting group and are simply assigned — often at the advice of the project manager — to oversee a specific site. Many of these people start out as subcontractors or lower-level site managers, then slowly build the expertise to be promoted to more responsibility.

It is also possible to work as a sort of freelancer, lending services to construction companies as needed on a project-by-project basis. This often requires a lot of marketing and self-promotion, and can be somewhat undependable since work is never guaranteed. The arrangement does provide a lot of flexibility, though, and those who are really skilled often find that they are able to cultivate enough of a clientele that they almost always have work when they want it.

Training and Other Special Considerations

Experience is usually more important than formal education when it comes to landing a job as a superintendent. The best candidates have often spent years if not decades on and around construction sites, and understand the inner workings of the relationship between builders and developers. Just the same, a university education is often advantageous, particularly in a field like business administration or accounting. While rarely required, these sorts of degrees can demonstrate deep knowledge that can come in handy for setting budgets and writing reports, and can overcome a lack of experience in certain cases.

It is sometimes also possible to get specific construction manager or superintendent training through a trade school or institute devoted to the building profession. These sorts of classes can usually be taken either on their own or as part of a larger certification program, and are a good way to brush up on needed skills in a more formal academic setting. Most classes combine book learning with hands-on experience.

Depending on location, superintendents may also have to be licensed or registered with a local building authority. In most places this is a relatively simple formality that requires little more than proof of identity and legal working status along with the payment of a small fee, though the process can be more complicated. It is important to keep in mind, too, that a license does not usually guarantee work even if it is required in order to be hired.

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Discuss this Article

anon346577
Post 20

I’m one of the old school superintendents with today’s methods and 40 years in residential and commercial construction with the last 13 years in commercial retail projects throughout the United States. I have read all these entries. Some I agree with and many others I do not.

What I believe really matters is that the client gets the best possible build project. No one person builds any project. Great projects are only accomplished through great teamwork. Teamwork has always been the main driving factor in building great projects and this will never change.

I would be the first to state education is necessary in anyone’s life. I of all people know this. for I have no paper education -- only what life has taught me. Now looking back, I see this was a very bad decision. It seems a paper education means much more than actual hands-on education in my world. This may not be true in your world, since people seem to live in their own little world. I try to work in this world, but not be of this world, as God commands his servants.

It is said the world has lost focus and lost its moral compass. Everyone can see the world and America especially has given in to Satan’s lies. What does being a superintendent have to do with this statement? The fact you think to ask this question is America and the world’s main problem. One can be educated or uneducated; either can be blind. I suggest more love less hate and envy. More teamwork and less me, me, me, me!

Lord, I pray for all who read these words that they all understand in the end of their life only one thing matters, serving the true real living God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) leading others to Christ as commanded. God created mankind for this purpose not mankind’s agenda. Lord, help others who read these words to realize their not to live under the first covenant, but to live under Christ’s new covenant of grace. Lord, bless all who read these words! Lord, open the eyes and ears of everyone who read these words so they can truly live as God’s servant and live not believing Satan’s lies, as billions do.

Just because one goes to church every day the doors are open does not mean they’re following in Christ’s footprints. The way to hell is wide and easy to find. The way to Heaven is very narrow and most miss the door to Heaven.

Compromise is Satan’s key lie to mankind. People must ask themselves if they are going to be the ones asking where everyone has gone, or be one of those gone when Christ comes back in that twinkling of an eye. This is the real question.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love us all so much and God gave mankind free will to choose their own fate. Nevertheless, one must understand there are many choices one can make. Only one choice counts. For one to receive eternal life in Heaven as it was meant with Adam, one must choose to love God, serve God, follow God’s Word and live God’s Will. Think, people! --Rickey H., traveling superintendent

anon345681
Post 19

I was a superintendent for six years. Stress, stress and more stress. Everything I learned was from actually doing the work. Classroom crap doesn't apply out here because all of the subs are uneducated themselves.

anon301198
Post 17

I'm currently a project superintendent for one of the largest multifamily builders in the nation. I have a college degree and eight years of field experience. I started at the bottom with a degree and worked my way up.

My degree provided me with the basic understanding of how construction works and my field experience provided me with additional skills to get the job done. Whether you have a degree on not, it all boils down to your level of dedication. If you put in the time and have the willingness to learn, you'll be successful. I hear people comparing college education vs. field education all the time. Having a degree doesn't mean your going to be a great superintendent, nor does having field experience. I know people who have been in the field for 15 years and they don't know jack. It all boils down to the individual

anon279408
Post 14

I see a lot of criticism on here of those individuals who decided to get an education, that they don't have a chance to become one of the best. This is ridiculous and you all should be ashamed of yourself, especially you anon82191. Your comment that the educated 'boys' should stick to project management so they don't have to get their hands dirty is naive and irresponsible. Let me guess: you are about 55, very old school and don't like change? Whether you like it or not, these young guns are the future. Why don't you be more supportive? All you do is look threatened.

I am 30 years old, have a degree in Architecture and worked my butt off for it. I have been in the worst of the economy and have worked through it, no matter how frustrating it has been to find employment in this field. You are basically saying that everyone who didn't grow up in the 70s doesn't know anything about hard work, which is irresponsible for you to say and you have no basis for saying it. I'm tired of the 'old dogs' acting like we have it easy nowadays. I have much respect for tradition and the hard work that a lot of these individuals went through because you didn't have the tools. Well, we do. Don't blame us because technology is a hell of a lot better now. If you want to talk about screw ups, this is the generation that messed things up on Wall Street and got too greedy.

I grew up learning great values, one of them being hard work. So think twice and have some backing to your comments next time. For your information, I do believe that field experience is the best you can get.

anon276593
Post 13

All i have to say is experience is education. One can not have experience without education. I always get "this is not my first rodeo" or "I have been doing this for so many years". Just because this is the way you used to do it, doesn't mean it's still or was ever the right way. You don't take a horse and carriage to work, do you? No, you ride in an automobile of some sort. The construction industry is like technology - always evolving and changing. Without knowing the technical skills or education, one that has been doing this for many years will fall flat on their faces regardless of experience. Education is key to improving our knowledge in problem solving and skill building.

It takes both experience and education to become a well versed superintendent.

anon176072
Post 12

I'm an assistant superintendent with a university education in an unrelated field. After school I worked as a labourer to pay the bills, then I got into safety. After two years in safety I made the jump over to assistant superintendent. I have to say an education helps to a certain point but I do believe it's impossible to do this job without experience.

You need to be a generalist which education doesn't really help. You may be a specialist in a certain aspect but once that stage of the job's over your education is out the window and you're stuck relying on your wits. There are so many little details which I don't think education helps with. I see it as this, people skills are number one. You are surrounded by specialists in the field and it's your job to get the information out of them, decipher it and apply it. Plus, every job is different and will require slightly different staging based on the conditions. Working with a good super who's seen it all, is the best education in this business.

As for stress, I don't think there's any other job like this. I think the mark of a good super is someone who knows how to keep going when faced with crippling stress. Also, they know how to take their lumps and keep going. It's a tough job and it takes up all aspects of your life. It's also very rewarding when your plans come together or you solve a tough problem.

anon166471
Post 11

I work for a great company; we do 600M worth of work a year and have five offices around the center of the country.

I had 15 years of onsite training before I became a Super. I am one of 10 or so "uneducated superintendents" out of 100+. The company I work for mandates that all Supers receive a minimum of 20 hours of continuing education a year and they will pay for as much as you desire. I average around 40-plus hours a year of CEC. My experience with real life opportunities has made me a strong asset to my company. In the past five years I have run a 3M-2M-25M project and my next project is over 30M. This is not because I am uneducated, but rather dedicated to the company and the customer.

I will agree that a lot of the collage guys have a better grasp on the digital side of the game at first, but I have found that to be the easy part of the career. The hard part is gaining the trust of the subs-owners-architects and designers. Trust is hard to teach and is better learned. Don't get me wrong: I believe in an education and will never tell a person to not get one. But in real life, it is the individual and not the paper or experience that will make you a success in this field.

This job is as stressful as they come and demanding as well. Many divorces have come because of the job requirements. Travel is always part of the job, and at some point you will have to (no matter who you are). And bottom line if it's wrong, it's your fault; if it lost money it's your fault, and if it's all perfect it's because of someone else.

This job is not what it seems. It's a lot harder and will make your mind work in your sleep. You will never leave it onsite and you will always bring it home.

anon152475
Post 10

After 15 years of taking over larger and more complex jobs that companies had bid and had no "in house" supers who knew how to run, or taking over jobs in seriously close to being shut down, I've found when out putting in70 or 80 hrs. a week only get atta boys until the job is done. Then it's the good ol' boy who stays at the company, while the man who saved the company's butt looks for his next project.

I'll agree, the schmoozing with the "guys" seems more important than bringing in the job on time and under budget.

anon147748
Post 9

I don't know who these folks that have commented have worked for in the past, but I have built homes for many years, have a degree in construction engineering, and believe that my insight into the necessary requirements to ensure that the structure is completed without fear of failure, is much superior to the typical superintendent that has come up through the ranks.

I have seen homes where the superintendent allowed the subcontractor to construct a "replacement" roof truss out of finger-jointed 2x4 studs. The ability of the individual is not based entirely based upon their education or their years in the field, but rather the ability of that individual to recognize the forest by looking at the trees.

I have known many excellent superintendents who did not have a college education, but learned how to build and kept informed of the requirements for installation of new products.

On the other hand, having worked for a national home builder for a number of years where most of the superintendents are college educated, I have witnessed many superintendents whom I would put up against anyone in the residential home building business in regards to the knowledge and capabilities to construct a quality home within the budget and on time.

When asked by prospective home buyers about who builds the best homes, my response is always that it is the superintendent whom you need to look at and make sure his work is adequate. There are good ones and bad ones, some who really are proud of the homes they build and some just drawing a paycheck. Just like any other business.

anon146616
Post 8

I'm currently an assistant superintendent. I have never met one superintendent who was worth anything who had an education. The 'people' skills you learn from education do not apply in the field. I myself am educated but the second I stepped onto a construction site I have basically started all over again.

Experience is the only teacher in this industry, I'm afraid The best supers come up from the field, let nothing stand in their way and have charisma.

anon126043
Post 7

Obviously, those who received an education thought it was important for themselves and their careers, and those who did not receive an education, didn't.

anon110082
Post 6

There are different norms for superintendent career paths that vary with commercial, industrial, or residential construction.

In today’s modern corporations, especially national home builders, many require superintendents have a college degree and at least minimal computer experience.

However, to be promoted to a project manager, companies require skill in use of e-mail, scheduling software, and budgeting and estimating software such as Excel spreadsheets.

Multifamily projects frequently have on site field secretaries that perform most of the clerical functions and reduce the need for the superintendent to have computer skills.

Regarding prior comments about having to kiss bosses' butts to get promoted, human nature causes many people to make decisions based on emotion rather than detached logic, professional analysis, and evaluation of job skills. I have spent many hours trying to determine why less qualified superintendents are promoted above the few with stellar accomplishments.

In some cases, a person spent time drinking and socializing while the workaholic went unnoticed as he was never available for off site socializing and went completely unnoticed as he was always at the job.

Others who were less qualified at quality control did not alienate subcontractors or generate complaints as their lack of skill made for happy construction subcontractors while the highly qualified superintendent alienated subcontractors because their punch lists were far more detailed and thorough which causes resentment and false accusations of selective enforcement or being singled out for persecution.

In conclusion, I have had over 30 years experience as a superintendent, project manager, and builder in single-family, multifamily, and custom homes construction and would not recommend the industry to most people.

anon82191
Post 5

Generally construction superintendents come from the field, usually with a carpentry background, not plumbing or electrical or heating and air. These guys have knowledge not learned from reading books or sitting in a classroom.

College boys are better off learning to be project managers, where they won't get dirty. Most of these guys can't even walk onto a site without falling down, having never done construction work.

Superintendents start from the ground up and work their way through the trades to become proficient at understanding all trades and how they relate to each other and the proper sequence of events, called scheduling.

anon80864
Post 4

Experience comes in very handy, but the only ones who get the most experience are the ones who spend their time kissing the bosses' butt trying not to get laid off, or if you are related to someone (it's who you know, not what you know) you all know that.

After spending a lot of time making a name for myself, i see that individuals who spend time on their knees are the only ones moving up. I am about to graduate with an associates in drafting and design and will work towards a bachelors in construction management. Hopefully I can prove that with a good education you let your degree do the kissing.

Also, getting an education is work, too. You have to work for it; it's not just given to you.

anon70955
Post 3

Just like a car -- you don't really need a driver's license to drive a car! The driver's license can't drive! Only the person!

anon62103
Post 2

I have yet to meet an educated site superintendent who can get the job done. Regarding your comments about negotiations and personal relationships with the client, don't forget about the tradesmen. Its a skill you either have or don't.

The last thing a job site needs is another pencil pusher for everyone to have to pick up after.

On the job experience is education. I have both and would choose someone with experience over education any day.

anon58194
Post 1

"This is a position that rewards experience more than a formal education". This comment is far from the truth in today’s industry.

As a licensed commercial contractor, I feel this type of stereotype is comparing today’s industry standards to a much older fashioned inferior career.

A formal education is pertinent in negotiations and personal relationships with not only owners of businesses but the customers we work for. I have yet to see an educated construction manager with five years' experience and up-to-date knowledge of today’s OSHA, EPA and code requirements be surpassed by and uneducated individual with 10 years experience. The idea of “this is how we’ve always done it” comes from the uneducated individual with unlimited years of experience. The idea of “this is how is done correctly and safely” comes from the educated one.

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