Once again, I was inspired to write after reading a post in a LinkedIn construction group. The article, “If I Own a Drill, Does That Make Me a Dentist?” laments the belief that simply buying a tool makes one a skilled craftsperson. I was reminded of the many times I have received a call from a confused electrician who had recently purchased an electrical estimating system and could not prepare an estimate. Every one of them had been told that, if they bought the program and took the vendor’s class, they would be an electrical estimator.


Let me make this clear: an estimating software package is a tool. Owning this tool will not turn you into an estimator any more than owning a multimeter makes you an electrician. Taking a software vendor’s class will not teach you to estimate. The classes are meant to teach you how to use the tool. 


Think about this. How many years does it take to become an electrician? Many electricians go through a five-year apprenticeship program. During that time, they are taught about electricity, installations and how to use the tools of the trade. If anyone tells them that buying an estimating system will make them estimators overnight, it’s time for them to talk to someone a lot more honest.


What does estimating software actually do? In a way, it is like a multimeter in that it has several functions, including five primary functions. The first is to provide a predefined list (the database) of electrical construction materials, including their associated prices and labor units. The software will also provide a way to maintain and modify the database. 


The second function is to facilitate getting components out of the database and putting them into an estimate. The takeoff interface, which enables data input using your monitor, keyboard and mouse, handles that function. 


The third function is to perform the math calculations, which happens behind the curtain.


The fourth function is to assist in preparing the recapitulation, or recap for short. This is where many things get added, including quotes, rentals, and direct and indirect job expenses. It is also where labor hours get converted to labor dollars and where taxes, overhead and profit are added. 


The final primary function the estimating software provides is to prepare the various estimating reports. In addition, most estimating software packages will have bells and whistles designed to make the job of estimating easier and quicker.


An estimating software package cannot teach you the concepts and methods of electrical estimating. It is only a tool that simplifies and speeds up some estimating tasks. Sure, you could stumble along trying to figure out how to prepare an estimate yourself. It could be easy enough to find out how to select the quantities of materials you need for your project. As an electrician, you’ve been doing that for years. However, doing that puts you at risk of making substantial errors that could hurt your company, or worse, put you out of business.


In college, I learned a saying that spoke of the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of a watch. Estimating is like that. Some things are simply not obvious, many of them having to do with labor. Labor is very subjective, thereby making it difficult to predict how much labor each project will require. There are dozens of factors to consider when applying labor to an estimate.


Here is an example that applies to many electricians trying to become estimators. Many of you are just starting up companies and are most likely estimating small projects. The labor units in many labor guides and estimating programs are based on a building that is at least 20,000 square feet, with enough work to keep a crew busy full time for several weeks. I have received quite a few calls from contractors asking me why they are going over their labor estimate on small projects. They were simply not aware that the labor estimates for small projects need to be factored up significantly.


So, let’s wrap this up. Estimating software is a tool. You are an electrician. Electrician plus software does not equal an estimator. To become an electrician, you learned from someone else, such as an employer or in an apprenticeship program. To become an estimator, you need to learn from someone, which could be an employer or a teacher. Finally, completing a class does not make you a senior estimator. Only a great deal of experience can do that.