What makes for a good electrical estimator?

Electrical estimating careers
What makes for a good electrical estimator?

Is your company looking for a good electrical estimator?  People with the right skill-set tend to be in hot demand as they’re not always easy to find. A good estimator can make a huge difference in your business - helping you to win projects and make a reasonable profit.  The question is, where do you find a good estimator, and what are the important traits to look for? Here’s what we’ve uncovered:  

Minimum qualifications for an electrical estimator

While there are some courses available for learning electrical estimating, there is no set requirement in the UK that an estimator must have passed a course. Typically, an estimator has started out on the tools or in an administrative role within the industry. You’ll often see job descriptions requiring that a Junior Estimator holds BTEC ONC - Electrical Engineering, and City & Guilds Level 3 qualifications, but this isn’t always the case.  Basically, it’s up to the individual company to set the minimum standards for anyone that they hire. If you’re willing to train them from scratch, then that’s entirely your prerogative. Most companies do prefer that new estimators have that time on the tools so that they at least have a foundational understanding of electrical rules and theories. It’s hard to be a good estimator if you don’t have context for why things are done a certain way.  In our recent interview with an estimator, Phil Kober, he explains his pathway to becoming an electrical estimator. As is typical for many, he trained as an electrician first, then worked as one for three or four years. He describes this as a “traditional path” and says most people he works with came into the role the same way.  

Can industry “outsiders” come in as estimators?

A recent EC Mag article raises some interesting points about training industry “outsiders.” Stephen Carr of Carr Consulting talks about how many companies have struggled to find and keep good electrical estimators. Carr says:

“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.”

In his company, Carr has often trained college students to help with the estimating task. While he originally assumed that engineering students would be the best for the job, he was surprised to find that accounting students turned out to be among his best estimators. “Being analytical and detail-oriented is especially important in this time of reduced bid document quality,” he says.  So, perhaps you could take on people new to the industry, but it will come down to how well you are set up to handle training and whether they possess the key attributes that are vital for a good estimator.  

Electrical estimator key attributes

Just like any other role, electrical estimating is not for everyone. While you can definitely train for the skills needed, you often can’t teach key attributes that are inherent to the work. For example, if someone really is not a “details” person, no amount of hammering on them to take care is likely to be effective.  Here are some key attributes we consider to be essential for an electrical estimator:

  • Attention to detail. They should be someone who enjoys this part of the work- otherwise, they’re likely to miss things.
  • A strong ability to stay focused. Again, if you’re easily distracted, you will miss things!
  • A strong ability for maths. While some things can be trained, if a person struggled with maths in school, they’ll probably struggle with estimating accurately too.
  • Confidence in dealing with people. An estimator doesn’t get to “stay in the back office” all the time. In fact, they attend meetings and speak with clients.
  • Well-presented. Yes, you can probably train for this one if it isn’t already there. An estimator may need to attend post-tender interviews and must convey a professional appearance.
  • Good time management skills. Not only do estimates need to be accurate, they must be timely to meet deadlines. Estimators will often find themselves with many competing priorities, so time management skills are essential.
  • Project management skills. These may be trained for, but the person still must have an overall affinity for keeping projects on track and monitoring different parts.
  • IT aptitude. Estimators generally work with software packages for estimating, along with a regular assortment of software used in an office setting. New hires should have an aptitude for working with IT.

Some kind of relevant experience (we prefer electrical, but you may be willing to train). In our interview with Linda Candels, an expert in training estimating apprentices, she points out that the experience may not be in electrical, but may still be quite relevant. Don’t discount someone who is coming from outside the electrical field, but look at how their previous experience ties in,” she says. She looks for aptitude as a key indicator- for example, she has trained many good estimators with a background in analysis.  

Choose what you want to hire for

While a background on the tools tends to be the traditional path here, it’s clear that doesn’t have to be the only path to becoming an electrical estimator. Many companies have expressed that they have difficulty finding good electrical estimators, so perhaps widening our pool of potential talent and training people up is an option.  Of course, what you want to hire for will depend on the role you need filled. Are you willing to train, or do you need a senior position filled?  We broke this down into a couple of broad areas that you could be hiring for:

  1. Attitude and aptitude. These are the people whom you are willing to train on the finer points of the electrical business, as long as they demonstrate the key aptitudes that make a good estimator. Linda Candels provided us with a lot of great tips about these sorts of people in her interview.Give them a good grounding in electrical education and ensure you have a clear process for them to follow. As Linda explains, be careful about simply pairing newbies with a senior estimator. The senior person still has to get their job done and may have their own “ways” they’ve developed that work for them. This can make the process a bit hazy for the trainee who is trying to follow them.
  3. Skill set and experience. These are the people who have some background in the electrical industry and don’t need total “ground floor” training. In the case of a more senior hire, it’s someone who has done the estimating role previously and proven themselves to be competent. (Note: Attitude and aptitude are still important here!)We would look at their overall competence in an electrical role, along with the key attributes previously listed. We’d also look for ability to use your preferred estimating package, especially if you want them to be up-to-speed in the role quickly. Do they know how to use Countfire? What about Excel?

Final thoughts

It’s not always easy to find a good electrical estimator for your business. Estimators are in demand, especially those who are more experienced.  If you’re willing to train someone, then you have a few more options available. Traditionally in the UK, estimators have started out on the tools, then been trained in the estimating role. This is still a great way to go, but if you have the capacity, don’t discount someone who has relevant aptitude and experience outside of the electrical industry.  Attitude and aptitude are important factors, but also remember that an estimator is often a face of your business for clients, especially during tendering. Find people who are also a fit for the impression that you’d like to convey to the world.