Estimating is like detective work. It involves collecting information, piece by piece, as details become available.
Even the smallest pieces of information may affect the estimate. The current labor shortages, which were predicted some time ago, will affect the competitiveness of all estimators and contractors.

Signatory contractors have a ready-made labor pool of well-trained craft persons available most of the time. But, a large project can serve as a magnet for skilled help, causing labor shortages elsewhere. In some cases, the situation has brought on employee raiding. In other cases, contractors are actually turning work away.

The estimator seeks an adequate labor pool when quoting a project. While there is only anecdotal data available, every shop knows there are peaks and valleys in labor performance. These gyrations are often linked to the contractor's quantity of available work, and the general employment picture in the area.

For example, in any given area of the country, shortages of skilled personnel may result in electricians working 25 to 50 percent overtime. Sociological factors have geared most activities of persons to an eight-hour work day. An excess of eight working hours per day will actually impede production, making the overtime hours less efficient and of greater cost for the work produced. The NECA Manual of Labor Units appendix devotes 23 pages to the effect of overtime, and should be studied by those estimating electrical work.

The estimator's task of predicting employment trends is precarious. The success of any bid, however, depends on the efficient flow of labor to the project. Area labor shortages are part of the equation; the other part is predicting a likely schedule. When seeking out a computerized estimating system, the ability to tie the estimate to a scheduling program is a desirable labor-saving device for the estimator.

Schedules range from a simple bar graph to more complex critical path methods.

Whichever format you use, dividing the project into divisions of work will provide much of the needed information for the schedules. While there are many variables encountered on a project, a schedule cannot be "cast in cement." Rather, it should be a reliable tool to figure out the personnel needs at various stages and the possible dates they will be needed. Such a schedule is obviously only as good as the performance of the project. Projections based on preliminary schedules must provide for contingencies, and the estimator is cautioned that reality often blows many schedules assembled at bid time out of the window.

The availability of employees can present a contractor with contractually punitive actions. Delays can work in two directions; those caused by the general contractor or other subcontractors and those that are the fault of the electrical contractor. Material delays are often forgiven if the items were ordered on time. Delays caused by labor shortages seem never to be forgiven.

Crew size is a major consideration of labor units. Frequently, general contractors or owners will order the electrical subcontractor to put more workers on the project, refusing to accept that help is not available. This is certainly a cause for concern when bidding a project. Many requests by contractors for more workers are, at times, unreasonable and lead to inefficiencies, and the obvious claims that always follow.

A major point of concern is the industry's effort to provide skilled workers with adequate training. Employers must take a proactive stance to assure that training does not take a back seat. At times, training an employee may backfire when some may move to another employer, or go into business for themselves. At least training employers will know that they have trained a qualified employee.

Apprenticeships and other training programs, such as those offered by community colleges, suffer during periods of labor excess. In the case of the apprenticeship programs, it is difficult to indenture a class of apprentices if they will not logically be able to get the hours of trade work in on projects.

Educational institutions' lack of foresight denies workers the training they will need once work becomes plentiful. The educational system in high schools is such that graduates need considerable remedial work before they can effectively cope with the demands of the trade.

Years ago, many of us had the advantage of being trained and educated at a vocational school for the first couple of years of our trade. A rare and surviving gem may be found at Chantilly High School in Virginia, whose curriculum has been enhanced with an apprenticeship program for students who possess the necessary academic and trade skills.

Students in the program have training options with contractors of all sizes, starting with training trusts within specializedareas to specialized training systems with individual or groups of employers.

A shortage of available and trained employees can also increase direct labor costs if turnover or unemployment claims increase.

The estimators' role in a changing work picture is not only to hustle and get more work, but also to be aware of labor trends that may impact the very project they have on their desks. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it won't hurt estimator. Curiosity is an estimator's tool for staying well informed.

DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach City College, Calif., a consultant and an expert witness. He can be reached at (562) 597-1877or by e-mail at edavid@lbcc.cc.ca.us.