8 Tips for training a new electrical estimating apprentice

Electrical estimating careers
8 Tips for training a new electrical estimating apprentice

How do you train up new electrical estimators when you have the need?  Here in the UK, we don’t really offer apprenticeships for the profession as we do for electricians, so we usually have to figure out other ways of providing good training. This mostly involves on-the-job training, which can of course come with its own risks.  Unlike the UK, the USA has training courses available for budding electrical estimators. We wondered what we might be able to learn and apply from this approach, so we recently caught up with Linda Candels of Candels Estimating, based in the USA, for a chat.  

About Linda and Candels Estimating

Candels Estimating is a company with more than 30 years experience in the electrical trade, and has been in business for 16 years. Their corporate headquarters is in Florida, but they also have branches in Connecticut, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Linda began as an estimating consultant, but soon found that there was a huge unmet need for newly trained estimators.  The American Society of Professional Estimators published some data which indicated there was a shortage of at least 15,000 estimators nationwide. This creates a huge problem for companies who rely on accurate estimates to book work and remain profitable.  We know there have been some difficulties here in the UK as well, with good estimators being in relatively short supply. You could look to anecdotal evidence as well. For example, the recent liquidation of construction giant Carillion boils down to a number of factors, but one thing mentioned was a tendency to bid too low in order to secure big contracts. We need estimators who have the ability to secure the contract, but with accuracy and realistic margins in mind.  Linda’s solution was to create a training program, which essentially brings up apprentice estimators. The problem with on-the-job training, Linda says, is that while trainees are usually paired with a senior estimator, that estimator still has to get their job done well at the same time. This can mean that the trainee ends up with bits and pieces of the estimator’s attention, and they can miss out on key parts of theory or knowledge that help them to better understand the job.  

Electrical estimating

1. Have a good grounding in theory

As Linda says, being able to count is one thing, but it’s important for trainees to have good context behind why they’re doing what they’re doing. You need to understand more than simply how to count things.  “Imagine you’re involved with construction at a school,” Linda says. “They’re putting up those concrete block walls because they’re durable, but you need to work with the mason to ensure that you get electrical installed. You can’t just cut a hole in the block to install a box. You’re going to need five or ten feet of EMT (Electrical Metallic Tubing), and you have to “chase the mason” as they do their work to lay it out. This involves a whole lot more labour than say, installing electrical ahead of drywalling.”  This is one of the pitfalls that should be trained for. You’re not just “counting things,” you’re estimating labour as well, and that’s going to look different depending on the type of work involved.  At Candels, they spend a lot of time teaching trainees the pitfalls that tend to cost a lot of money. Linda mentions that she belongs to a few forums and groups online where estimating gets discussed. “What many people are describing is “guesstimating” not estimating,” she says. They make a guess based on square footage or number of openings, but they’re not accounting for the type of work that is involved. This highlights the need for well-trained estimators out there.

2. Stay engaged, even when using software

Linda likes automated software, such as Countfire for how it can help with streamlining the estimating process. But she cautions: “you still need to think!” You need to understand what the software is counting and know to look for any anomalies which require your specific attention.  For example, if there is an annotation on the drawing, you need to take note of that yourself and figure out how it impacts your estimate. The software can’t think for you! This is another point for ensuring that trainee estimators understand context. It can be worth them learning to count manually, just so they are in-tune with what the software does for them, and where they need to be careful.

3. Teach a clear process

Accuracy is one of the key skills for any estimator, and it’s not necessarily something you are born with. Linda finds that the key to teaching accuracy is to provide trainees with a clear process to follow.  Sometimes with on-the-job training, there’s a danger that clarity of process can become a bit hazy, especially if the trainee is trying to follow what an experienced estimator does. Most estimators will do their best to train, but at the same time, they’re actually on a live job - they need to get the work done. If you’ve been estimating for a few years, do you ever stop to break down your process? Or is it something that just seems to come naturally to you now that you’re so used to it? If you’re training someone, it helps to have it broken into steps.

4. Look for people with aptitude and attitude

Where do you find your trainee estimators? In many companies, those people were on the tools as an electrician, or perhaps they’ve had a project role in the office which had a lot of interaction with estimators. Linda points out that aptitude for electrical estimating might come from a number of other areas, not necessarily with an electrical background.  For example, Linda herself does not have a background as an electrician. Before becoming an estimator, she was a marketing analyst for an elevator company. She had to do an analysis for programmable electronic controls for elevators, and had no idea what they did. She looked for similarities and differences as basis for analysis, which gave her a good grounding to go into estimating. She knows many people with a similar analysis background who make great estimators because it has given them the aptitude.  “A good candidate for an estimator role has to really want to do it,” she says. “Aptitude and attitude really form the perfect storm which makes for a good hire.”  

5. Understand common training pitfalls

There are some common pitfalls that stand out to Linda. “Electricians have a tendency to underestimate things,” she says. For example, installation only tends to be 70% of the labour involved for the job. They don’t account for all the extra little things that suck up time - including going backwards and forwards between the van! Estimators need to be able to factor in a more accurate representation of how long the job will take.  Linda also says that sometimes electricians have a tendency to overthink the estimate a bit, particularly due to their field experience. On the other hand, it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t have the field experience to be able to visualise everything that is involved. For example, when she first began, she didn’t have the experience to understand which hangers and supports would have to be involved.  This is where it goes back to finding someone with aptitude, or some kind of related experience that makes them a good candidate. Don’t discount someone who is coming from outside the electrical field, but look at how their previous experience ties in.  

Electrical estimating

6. Be involved with what trainees are learning

Linda’s company teaches trainees a lot of the theory behind good estimating practices. She says that it’s important for managers and colleagues to be involved, to know what the trainee is learning, and be open to learning more.  Sometimes there’s a temptation to debate what someone has learned, particularly if the manager doesn’t have a background in the theory themselves. This isn’t usually helpful for the trainee, whereas keeping an open mind regardless of your level of experience can be a better environment for learning.

7. Learn and move on

Most estimators can think back (and cringe) about one or two big mistakes they have made in the past. With trainees, a big mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have what it takes - look for the learning opportunity and move on.  Linda points out that it’s also important that you don’t expect a newbie estimate to be spotless. Have a process for checking and ensuring that they’ve included all key requirements.  “Learn from your own mistakes, and also learn from other people’s mistakes.” Linda and her husband are quite open about costly mistakes they’ve made in the past - each provides a lesson to new estimators!

8. Don’t get discouraged

Linda says that when you’ve spent enough time training people, you learn to recognise early on whether they are likely to “get it.” In that respect, she recommends cutting your losses as early as possible if you’re sure someone is not going to be a good fit.  Linda also says that a good manager should recognise whether it’s just a piece of the job that the person needs to be brought up-to-speed on, or if the role in its entirety is a bad fit. One thing they do that can help is to offer a “try before you buy” kind of scheme, where people work on a trial basis. They usually have a couple of weeks to test out the job and see whether they will be a good fit.  

Final thoughts

While there are differences between what is available for training estimators in the UK as compared to the USA, we can see the merits of having more training on the theory-side of estimating to ensure that trainees understand potential pitfalls. There are some training courses available here for this, however the majority of estimators are still trained on-the-job.  If you’re training a new estimator, consider how you will give them a step-by-step process and get them engaged with the details. What do they need to know if there is no tool to help them?  Look for attitude and aptitude in trainees, and remember that someone with a non-electrical background may just have fitting experience. All the best for your training endeavours!