Construction Best Practices

4 Ways PMs Can Use Job Cost Accounting to Make Construction Projects More Profitable


Do you want to make 10% more money? (Most project managers probably do!) Do you want to make 10% more money by working 10% more hours, and 10% harder? (Probably not so much.)

That’s why profitability matters, explains Leslie Shiner, author and construction financial consultant. 

Most people think that increasing profitability means increasing volume . . . but for busy construction project managers, selling more isn’t the easiest path to increasing profits.

Beware of selling more as a way to increase profitability.

There are a limited number of ways for contractors to increase profitability: Charge more, spend less, and sell more. Of these three, spending less and charging more are the easiest ways for a project manager to increase profit margin. Yet, the project managers themselves can play a significant role in boosting profit margin.

Shiner suggest looking into four ways project managers can increase profit:

  1. Understand construction profitability
  2. Don’t mistake makeup for margin
  3. Job cost at a fully burdened rate
  4. Use change orders to regain profitability
Achieving profitability starts with estimating costs

Achieving profitability starts at the very beginning of a project, Shiner says, when estimating costs. Whether you do progress billing or milestone billing, you have to start the job off with an estimate. Your overhead — direct job costs like labor, materials, subcontractors, equipment — is non-negotiable.

2. Don’t Mistake Markup for Margin

Many project managers talk about markup and margin as if they're interchangeable, but if you confuse these two concepts, you’re in for a loss.

Markup is always a percentage of costs. Margin is a percentage of income. Markup is always bigger than margin.

Understand margin vs. markup costs

Financial statements provide margin numbers; but they do not provide markup numbers. When someone asks, "What's my overhead?" and the response is, "Hey, your overhead's 25%!" That's a percentage of income, a margin number. It’s not the markup.

Markup is always bigger than margin.

To estimate markup, take the costs that you have for the change order and multiply it times one plus the markup. For an example, using change orders: To achieve a 35% gross margin, multiply my costs by 1.54. That is, take the cost and divide it by one minus 35%, or 65%.

If your overhead is 30% and you markup everything up 35%, you’re making a profit, right? Wrong, Shiner says. You've confused markup with gross margin, and you are probably losing money.

Burdened payroll costs include markup/profit

3. Job Cost at a Fully Burdened Rate

Another way project managers can avoid a common job costing pitfalls is to use burdened, rather than unburdened, payroll costs. A burdened billing rate covers gross wage, labor burden, overhead and still leaves enough for profit. Payroll is the gross pay that you pay an employee, plus all the costs associated with paying that employee, including your profit.

For example, suppose someone is making $25 per hour gross wage. On average, this works out to about $50 per hour as a burdened rate. Typically, your markup is probably at least 100%, or double, the hourly unburdened rate.

On average the burdened rate is a 100% markup, double the unburdened wage.

Employees have a lot of associated costs. Let's take a look at the labor burden:

  • Employer payroll taxes
  • FICA
  • Medicare
  • Workers comp
  • Liability insurance
  • Fringe benefits

Do you pay for health insurance? Do you have pension or 401(k) matching that you provide? And for union contractors, there are significant additional fringe benefits.

4. Regain Profitability with Change Orders

If you manage change orders correctly, you may have an opportunity to increase your gross margin. You may be able to have a higher, gross margin on the change orders than on the original project.

As the job progresses, slippage will cause your gross margin to fall. But if you manage change orders correctly, Shiner says, you can actually increase your gross margin. You may be able to achieve a higher gross margin on the change orders than on the original project.

You can increase your gross margin if you manage your change orders properly.

A connected cloud platform like Trimble Construction One centralizes job costing to capture costs including labor, equipment, materials and production.

Project managers might not control the pricing of the projects—but you might have control of pricing change orders, and you may be able to raise your labor billing rates if needed. Change orders can present many opportunities to balance costs, but only if you’re tracking budgeted costs against actual costs.

Do your job-cost reports include real-time actual costs?

Connected, cloud-based job cost accounting workflows are the best way to compare budgeted costs to actual costs in real time. And, data intelligence tools like Viewpoint Analytics give project managers even deeper project financial insights.

To track budget against actual costs, you need real-time information to compile good job cost reports. Do they tell you what you spent? Do they tell you what you spent compared to what you've budgeted to spend?

For more accounting tips for project managers, watch Shiner’s popular on-demand session from our recent Collaborate 2021 user conference. Learn more about Leslie Shiner at

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Charity Heller leads the Viewpoint content team. She is passionate about engaging new audiences and creating relationships through storytelling, data, strategy, and inclusion.