Diogenes, who wandered the streets of Athens many centuries ago, was looking for an honest man. Contractors looking for an estimator candidate face a similar situation. Field personnel see estimating as a step out of the field to more pleasant surroundings, but often don't realize the stress that comes with being an estimator. On the other hand, middle managers consider estimating a drudge. Then too, there are those that are anxious to be estimators and feel that they should immediately be the chief estimator. Unfortunately, there are also those with a glib line that end up getting a contractor into trouble.

Picking the "right" person to produce accurate and profitable estimates is not easy. Where to look or recruit is a question that comes up frequently. There are no set formulas. Estimating is scientific and, at the same time, an art. Though technology has removed much of the necessary but tiring detail, technology is not the panacea some make it out to be. If estimators must be made out of some kind of special mold, where do we find candidates who fit the requirements? What can or should an individual do to prepare for the work?

Some time ago the Construction Roundtable suggested some educational qualifications that would be ideal for construction middle management. The coursework included many of the classes offered at community colleges and universities, either for degree work or as extension courses.

Both verbal and written communication skills are critical. As estimators, individuals will be representing the contractor verbally and with written communication. Submitting an estimate by phone, in person or by other means requires clear, concise communication abilities.

Estimators should be able to simplify when speaking and writing. As an old television program used to put it, "just the facts, ma'am." The person receiving your bid is concentrating on your price in order to complete their bid. Flowery sales pitches are not wanted. The ability to say the most, with accuracy, while keeping it brief is a welcome trait whether in writing or in person.

Math skills and the ability to recognize unusual results are certainly requirements that can't be overlooked. This is especially true when dealing with the company's finances because every estimate affects the bottom line and the growth or survival of the entity.

Spatial relationships come up in estimating; it can be necessary to acknowledge items not shown on a plan. In most cases, plans are two-dimensional and lack the elevation aspects. So estimators must be aware of the fact that to drop down for a switch requires additional wiring components.

Obviously, plan-reading skills appear high on the priority list. This is an acquired skill and there is a variety of places that teach plan reading and interpretation. Estimators must put up with a variety of plan drawing schemes, as not all designers or engineers use the same basic methods. A radical example was a set of plans drawn by a landscape engineer who put a symbol schedule together using landscaping symbols. I rejected this plan and returned it to the issuer with no estimate. If the plan is poor, you can just imagine the problems when having to install the wiring.

Understanding productivity measurements will come in handy when adjusting labor units. While there are material price sources readily available, the same can't be said about the labor required to install the material. The NECA Manual of Labor Units is probably the best authority for labor units. Detractors may be all too willing to tell you the reason not to use the data, but if these negative people would learn to factor the labor tables they may find the origin of the labor factor they have used for years. Factoring is the educated reduction or increase of published labor units based on dependable information such as company experience and feedback from the field.

The project plans are only one part of the contract documents. The job specifications, invitation to bid, and the contract with the person asking for your bid all have to receive serious review and understanding. A course on principles of contract law and contract documents is very important. You may not luck out with a course in construction documents, but similar courses may be available. You may also be able to convince an instructor to review construction items if they're provided.

Developing estimators is an important function of the industry. The skills mentioned are by no means a finite list. It's recommended that estimator candidates would also learn the material and develop computer skills. EC

DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, a consultant and an expert witness. He can be reached at 562.597.1877 or at edavid@lbcc.cc.ca.us.