Training Inexperienced Estimators

Training Inexperienced Estimators

Lately, I have spoken to many people about how hard it is to find and keep estimators. Some have asked me about making estimators out of inexperienced people. Can a person from outside the electrical construction trade be turned into an electrical estimator? The answer is yes, but it takes time and dedication from the employer and the future estimator. It is very important to acknowledge an inexperienced estimator will never be more than a bean counter if they don’t get to know electrical materials, how they fit together and how they are installed.

For about 15 years, my company, Carr Consulting, has hired college students for estimating duties. It was understood that they would be temporary estimators, because they would eventually move on to the field they were studying for. They learned to perform basic counting duties, and I reviewed all of their work. Most of them never moved beyond their counting responsibilities. However, a few demonstrated a knack for the work, which I encouraged by training them for more difficult estimating tasks. It was always disappointing when it came time for these more advanced estimators to move on.

Here is what I learned about training inexperienced estimators while working with these college students.

In the beginning, I assumed engineering students, preferably electrical engineering, would be the best candidates. I was wrong. I suppose it should not have surprised me that accounting majors turned out to be some of my best estimators. Being analytical and detail-oriented is especially important in this time of reduced bid document quality.

The next thing I learned is the trainees need a lot of structure and very specific instructions for each task on each project they are assigned to take off. I created templates that outlined the specific steps needed for a task. For instance, some of my more advanced young estimators were able to take off branch conduit and enter it into the estimating system. I used a template, modified for each project, laying out the steps for entering the branch takeoff into the computer. The template would indicate how to set up the specifications for things such as EMT fittings and wire types, and it would inform them which assemblies to use. It would then show the step-by-step instructions for entering the takeoff into the estimating system.

I noticed they quickly became faster than me. Because they didn’t have distractions and phone calls and were not trying to solve the puzzles almost every set of drawings creates, they had a laser focus on just one task.

As I mention in the first paragraph, inexperienced estimators need to be taught about materials as soon as possible. The earlier they receive this training, the sooner they will become more useful and productive. Also, as they become more knowledgeable about material, they will ask you fewer questions. 

You need to be very patient regarding these early interruptions. You may or may not know I did not come from the field. I spent seven years at a wholesale house and two years as a purchasing agent for the Los Angeles branch of the second-largest electrical contractor in the nation, at that time. I knew electrical materials very well, maybe better than many electricians, when I was recruited for an estimating position. My recruiter told me all I needed to learn was what installations looked like. So, I observed. Any time an opportunity came up to observe an electrical installation I had not seen before, I jumped on it.

For new estimators, first teach them about basic electrical materials. Teach them to know and understand the differences between all the conduit, wire, supports, box and device types. Make sure they understand how these things go together, including every material item in the assemblies you use. The next step is to have the new estimator observe the installations. This is important because estimators must understand how installations are made and have a three-dimensional image in their head of each installation. This is a big part of moving on from the position of bean counter to being able to honestly hold the title of estimator.

The next steps are simply continuing to introduce them to more types of takeoffs. Also, if you are not comfortable with teaching estimating, you may want to find an estimating class for your new estimator. The class should be scheduled after the student becomes familiar with materials and installations.

About the Author

Stephen Carr

Estimating Columnist
Stephen Carr has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or .

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.