What does it take to be an estimator?

I am frequently asked what type of courses would help prepare someone to become an estimator. There is no single answer, as many of the skills required of an estimator can be gained through normal life experiences—though some of the know-how may only be gained in organized course work. The training will also vary for those electricians looking for an occupational change or for retraining.

Manual or computerized estimating is based on spreadsheets. Therefore, one of the skills that should be mastered early on is to understand the makeup of the spreadsheet. A computer-based course in the use of programs such as Excel and similar systems should be an easy starter and a tool that will be of constructive use no matter what type of work it may be applied to.

Beware of computer programming courses; all systems used in the industry have personnel with much greater experience in programming. There are many free or low-cost courses available through local school systems or community colleges. A valuable prerequisite course should be keyboarding, although typing as I do with two fingers works well if the keyboard is familiar. Just imagine the loss of productivity when the journey-level person who comes into the estimating department and has to “hunt and peck” on the computer’s keyboard.

Specifications are written at a fairly high grade-level equivalent, and are so dry that reading them for content can become a serious challenge. There are certain terms in specifications that should make a reader sit up and take note. A useful course is one in speed-reading, as that will help cut the superfluous information and call your attention to vagaries or unusual requirements. Considering that most specifications are repetitive from one project to another, the quick ability to spot changes comes in handy.

The backbone of a bid is that it is a legal document. Once a bid is submitted, the contractor is obligated to perform if the bid is accepted. Reading the contract documents is obviously important. Understanding them and their underlying reasons is equally important. Most community colleges offer courses in business law at a reasonable cost. A one-semester course will usually cover the basics of a contract, but is not a substitute for the company attorney.

Since the estimator is usually the first contact with a business prospect, good communication abilities become important. The ability to write a short, succinct memo that gets to the bottom line comes into play when the bid letter or confirmation is composed. Whether verbal or in writing, communications gets down to “just the facts”; this is not the time to wear down the customer with flowery or unnecessary language.

Estimates and the work they produce are a major factor to any contracting business. Obviously, everyone starts out to make the maximum profit possible, but that financial gain is directly affected by a number of costs. Many starting estimators have difficulty with many of the accounting terms that affect the bids. NECA’s Financial Performance Report, Index Number 1055 is a valuable aid in understanding financial variances. The latest issue is for 2002, but an earlier copy will suffice. This booklet can be confusing for first-timers and becomes a reason to take either a small business operations course or an elementary accounting or bookkeeping class. Not to worry, your company has fellow employees that take care of the books, but sometimes it’s good to know what they’re talking about.

A supportive educating process is the various industry publications. You are reading one of these magazines now. While some of the articles may seem to be above the starter’s knowledge, becoming familiar with the terms and contents of the articles comes in handy for expanding the range of thinking. There are many Web sites that offer the same type of exposure. NECA’s site at http://www.necanet.org is a great place to start taking advantage of these resources.

Advertisers in the various publications not only pay for publishing but also provide the estimator with helpful product information, Web sites, and company contacts. Outdated copies will work just as well. While I don’t advise dumpster diving, let the readers in your company know that you would like their trade-related reading materials when they’re done with them. The information doesn’t age that fast.

There are many sources for further education and the folks you work with provide a wonderful opportunity to get a better insight into a great profession. Education in this industry is a continuing necessity. 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.