Consider experience, skills and personality

Judging by some labor shortages, perhaps the drought of work is coming to an end. At the same time, contractors may be considering changes for the better in the estimating department. Adding to the expected shortages of people power is the aging baby boomers who are reaching retirement. All this means that there will be spots in many firms that will need capable midmanagement personnel, project managers and estimators.

Contractors all expect to find employees who are as smart or smarter than they are for very good reasons—the electrical field is a moving target and is constantly changing. Potential candidates picked to fill various positions within the firm may have a variety of prior experiences. Some are journey-level and interested in increasing their responsibilities within the company. Others may come from the warehouse staff, distributors or similar occupations. Office personnel skills are a considerable advantage in many of these positions.

Perhaps contrary to some industry veterans, computer literacy is fast becoming a prime requirement. Knowledge of manual estimating is still a necessity, but estimates are now predominately completed on desktop or portable computers. Prospective candidates would be well advised to learn keyboarding, as the hunt -and-peck method of typing is too slow. Spreadsheet and word processing programs are other essentials. Most estimating systems will resemble Microsoft Excel or similar programs, and in some programs, the skills learned with Excel come in handy. Many estimating programs give operators the ability to copy and paste information to another standard program.

Estimating involves reading project specifications that can be extremely boring and repetitive, and because of this, there is a danger that important points will be missed. A speed-reading course could be a considerable timesaver. At the same time, it is important to spot the vagaries in a new set of specifications. A good way to prepare for that task is to read specs of already completed projects.

The ability to communicate effectively both verbally and in writing is essential to assist with industry contacts or the installers. Information must be gleaned from plans and specifications and will usually require communicating with distributors and others.

Computer programs have removed the drudgery of extending unit prices and labor hours and have reduced the time required to finish these tasks to seconds. Estimators should, however, be capable in mathematics, if for no other reason than to spot errors. For example, if a square-foot price for a project is unusually high, further checking has to be done to find out the cause. The variance may be justified, but management will want to know the reason.

Project plans are drawn in two dimensions, leaving the third dimension—the height of the walls—as something that has to be visualized. More important, this dimension must be measured and counted wherever there is a change in the altitude of a conduit run. Therefore, special relationship capability is something estimators need to acquire or compensate for in some way. If the prospective candidate is not able to read plans fairly easily, then a course in construction plan reading will come in handy. There are computer programs that can display the third dimension, but most plans are not drawn to those programs. Three-dimensional views are helpful in manufacturing, but don’t warrant the time and expense for building construction except for some special projects.

Individual discipline is a valuable characteristic for estimators. The rhythm of estimating, just like the company workload, will cycle at times. It is those slow times that the estimator can touch base with his contacts with the goal of getting work for the company or get an inside view on up-and-coming projects. Contacting engineers can be a good investment of your time. But not all design professionals are receptive to cold calls, so pick your candidates with care.

The occasions when your bid is hijacked or sold out by unscrupulous people is not the time to throw a fit. Instead, take time to note those involved so your best bids will not reach their hands again.

When looking for estimator candidates, don’t neglect the employees already working for the company; they’re a known quantity. Promoting from the inside also helps the morale of all employees. 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.