How to Train an Estimator

When I was asked to write 1,200 words on how to train an estimator I thought, “This should be easy, I train estimators every day.” After a few hours of organizing my thoughts and writing my outline, I realized 1,200 words will barely scratch the surface. At best, it might be the introduction to a book. Any attempt to educate someone, even at the most basic level, in 1,200 words would be futile. In my opinion, it simply can’t be done. Sorry.

What I can do is give you a starting point, an idea, an inspiration. Point you in the direction of an ultimate goal and prepare you to become a good teacher. There are a few things you need to learn before approaching your new student.

First, teaching takes time. Estimating is not something that just happens by handing a student a set of highlighters, scale and counter, sitting them down in front of a set of plans and saying, “There you go! Count all these symbols and tell me when you are finished.”

You will have to do much more if you want to achieve any viable results. If you do not have the time to teach, don’t become a teacher—hire someone else or send your student to school. And if you do, know this: other teachers and schools can certainly help, but if you want this estimator to become your extended estimating brain, producing estimates that are consistent with your company’s estimating practices—then you should be the one that teaches. You need to pass on your knowledge, your skills and your experiences. You want to mold this student into the estimator that your company needs in order to achieve success. This information cannot be acquired from outside sources. It needs to come from you.

Second, you need patience. There will be hundreds of questions that will most likely come when you are be on the phone, in the middle of a bid or a writing project. Questions are interruptions that require immediate attention and they require answers. Giving answers will require you to stop focusing on what you are doing, think about the correct answer and then explain it.

This is where patience comes in handy. A good teacher should never give the impression of being frustrated by questions. If a student senses this, he might stop asking. If this happens, the learning process fails. Embrace and encourage the questions as a sign your student is interested in what he or she is doing and has a willingness to improve.

Third, the teaching process requires a clear vision. What is it that you are trying to achieve? What do you want to teach?

In order to train an estimator, you should have a prepared lesson and strategy of what you want them to learn. This can be achieved by asking yourself some simple questions: What is your desired end product? What goals do you want to set? Is this person your next senior estimator or will he just become a basic bean counter, preparing take-offs and only performing the most basic of counting functions?

After you have answered these and any other questions you think of, you should be able to determine a starting point for your student. You should also have a set of goals and timelines laid out so you can monitor not only your teaching progress, but the progress of your new estimator. It will be important to know how far he or she has come before moving onto bigger and more intensive (and expensive) tasks. For example, if your estimator has not acquired a strong skill for counting lighting fixtures, perhaps it is too soon to move them onto rolling off the branch circuits or taking off disconnect switches.

In order to organize your plan and goals, you need to assess the estimator you are going to teach. Is he a complete novice? Does he have any experience in the industry? Any field installation experience? Computer experience? How much estimating experience? How are his math skills?

One way this can be done is to create a questionnaire that measures a student’s knowledge of lighting fixtures, the National Electrical Code or construction. Perhaps you already know most of this from your initial interview. Take time to get to know your students and tailor your teachings around them.

Let’s assume you are bringing in a complete beginner—a junior estimator to train as your assistant. Your goal for the end of the first year is to have this assistant reasonably self-sufficient on counting lighting fixtures, branch devices and low-voltage systems for standard residential or commercial construction projects. In addition to this, the junior estimator should be able to 1. separate and organize a set of plans; 2. read and interpret the specifications on basic bid instructions, the bid form, basic electrical materials and methods; 3. start the take-off on a project, 4. organize vendor quotations; 5. track all project documents and addenda; and 6. know all the steps required for the bid process.

Should I send them to training school or a two- or three-day estimating class? There are many teaching venues offered for the construction industry. Many universities and city/community colleges are now offering courses in construction estimating. However, these courses are not necessarily specific to electrical construction. Most of these courses are taught in full semesters. This can be a great way for an estimator in training to reinforce what he or she is learning on the job.

I would highly recommend paying for a one-night per week course on any topic involving the construction industry—especially estimating, project management or scheduling. The more motivated you can get your estimator toward education, the better your estimator will become.

Some software firms also offer training. One of the top ranked electrical estimating software companies, Accubid, offers teaching seminars in major cities around the country. Their classes vary from one to three days and there are some continuing courses.

They also offer classes based on the level of estimator. These types of seminar courses can be very educational and often give the student access to industry-specific training that they might not get from a college course. However, in my opinion, it is sometimes very tough for a beginner to retain three straight days worth of information. You may want to wait until the second half of the year before sending them. This said, these one- to three-day courses can be very insightful and will certainly give a beginning estimator a jump-start on what they need to learn.

Achieving all of the goals I listed by the end of the first year is a tall order, but it is possible. You might want to make a copy of the goals list and keep it posted on the wall by your and your new junior estimator’s desks. As it is crucial for the teacher to have a set of goals, it is equally important for the student to know what is expected of him.

So now that you have assessed your student, developed a plan and have your goals for the year—hand your student a set of highlighters, scale and counter, sit him down in front of a set of plans and say, “First, I would like you to count all these symbols. Each symbol represents a different type of light fixture. Each light fixture is different ... . Oh, and please let me know if you have any questions.” EC

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or


About the Author

Stan Shook

Stan Shook was ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR's estimating columnist from 2005 to 2012. He works as an electrical estimator in California. Read his blog at or contact him directly

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.