Two of my previous articles go well with this one. “Are Your Estimators Bored?” (March 2006) and “Never Stop Bidding Work” (March 2008). They both address this article’s topic: keeping estimators busy. So off you go to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR’s archives at www.ecmag.com.

The recession has kicked in hard, and the reality is there just aren’t as many projects to bid as there used to be. Additionally, this handful of projects likely will have more than a few handfuls of competition. Yesterday, you might have been one of eight bidders. Today, you are one of 18. Not only are your chances of winning limited, but you may have to bid the jobs well below cost just to compete with the pack.

Another reality is that contractors will need to bid twice as many jobs, if not more, just to stay afloat. Faced with the uncertainty, many contractors may be asking themselves, “What should I do with my estimators?”

Estimating the stimulus

President Obama’s Stimulus Plan Web site, www.recovery.gov, claims the construction industry is a critical element to bringing our economy back. According to the Web site, “$27 billion in […] funds are headed to states to provide critical repairs to our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.” When this money is actually released (late 2009 or early 2010), there will be more projects to bid.

You may not think there is much electrical work in roads and bridges, but there is. Street lighting, lighted signage, toll booth plazas, railroad crossings, draw bridges, rest areas, trucking weigh stations, highway patrol facilities and other structures all will require pipe, wire, devices, equipment, signal systems, power distribution and, of course, electricians.

Let’s not forget about the rivers all these bridges cross. Bridges often are used to continue the connection of utilities from one side of a river to the other. So there is going to be a lot of electrical and communications work to estimate on the bridge projects.

Some of the $27 billion will be going into our water treatment facilities, high-speed rail and mass transit, power grids, upgrades to healthcare facilities and schools, solar and wind generation systems, and other green industries. These projects also will have intense electrical and communication systems to estimate.

What you don’t know will hurt you

A water treatment facility is vastly different from a retail strip mall, a hospital, a commercial office space or a manufacturing facility. The same goes for bridgework and highway projects. These jobs often are difficult to estimate, even for the veteran.

As they encounter the new technologies on these industrial-style projects, younger estimators will face new designs, installations and materials with which they have little or no experience. Many may find themselves out of their league, lacking the necessary knowledge and training to bid them.

Estimators will need to retool their minds and databases to accurately estimate this new work. If they have not been exposed to these types of projects, they will not know what to look for and easily could miss a lot of material and labor.

It may not actually be as slow out there as we all think, and it likely will get busier soon. So I tell owners that they might want to plan on keeping their estimating staff intact and possibly add to it. If they can’t, I tell them to find a good firm to call on so they can bid more jobs.

Now is the time to strengthen your estimating department. Train your estimators how to value-engineer the projects you are bidding today and how to be more competitive. Teach them what they don’t know. Know their limitations and their talents. Make them increase their efforts toward building your company. Invest serious time into your databases, build up your assemblies and create better estimating protocols. Develop marketing materials that boast your estimating department’s qualifications, and send them to all your clients and to every prospect.

Don’t get lazy

I also offer a strong warning to estimators reading this: now is not the time to sit around twiddling your thumbs and waiting for the boss to make things happen. Get into action mode. Educate yourself, take some night classes or attend some seminars. Get out there and study jobs you don’t know; go for a long walk on a short bridge. Study the bridge. Clean up your office, archive the old plans, clean out the file cabinets or develop some historical bid data sheets. Show your boss you are the future and someone worth keeping around. Things will get busy again, and you’ll want to be there when they do.

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or sfs@TakeOff16.com.