How to Estimate Training Time and Costs

estimate training

Estimate Training Time and Costs: Your Dilemma

Are you a freelance consultant working on a client proposal? Are you a client looking at a vendor’s proposal? No matter your role, you’re here at this blog post because you need help on how to estimate training time and costs. I know you want a positive (profitable) return on your investment.

This blog post has a little over 1,700 words, and may take you 10-17 minutes to read to the end, excluding time to view any videos or links I mention. I feel this topic is so important to both clients and freelance vendors that it deserves more than a “quickie” discussion.

If you’re the client, you want value for the dollars you’ll spend on the project. If you’re the freelance consultant (aka the vendor), you want the project to end in the black, with a profit, so you can earn a living wage and not lose your consulting business due to income not covering your expenses. Clients watch their budget, and freelancers do the same with theirs. This blog post has suggestions and ideas for both roles that I’ve learned from running my freelance business.

NOTE: I wrote this blog for an American (USA) audience only, as that is my only business perspective and frame of reference. If you are an outsourcer in a country other than the USA (per responses to the SurveyMonkey survey - see link below) seeking how to estimate training time and costs for your area, I apologize that I cannot help you. I have not lived and worked in your country, so I can't address your financial and business considerations. Thanks for understanding.

Estimate Training Time and Costs: It’s an Art

Before you pull out your calculation tools, know that estimating is an art, with some reliable formulas tossed in, and not a pure science. Why? Because you’ll need to add into the equation the Art of Negotiating. Freelancers need to eat and pay bills, and clients need to stay within approved budget dollars. So, you’ll engage in back-and-forth discussions. This blog post’s suggestions, I hope, will help you to negotiate fairly.

In addition, since autumn of 2008, financial and economic forces have radically changed the learning and development world. Before then, U.S. consultants easily earned from $75 to $125 an hour on training design and development projects. Now, many U.S. clients offer only $25 to $50 an hour, which will not help the consultant to pay her or his bills over the long haul. Plus, to save money, many U.S. clients have outsourced their projects to areas in the world where the costs are between $10 to $25 an hour. That’s reality, and this blog post addresses it, with a slant or bias toward U.S. freelance consultants. (Note: I was hired three times to QA and “redo” elearning projects outsourced outside of the U.S. I’m not making any judgments nor disparaging remarks, I’m just stating my experience.)

Estimate Training: The People Factor

Clients need to know that, on their side of the business relationship, there are many variables involved when you try to estimate training time and costs. As I wrote above, it’s more of an art rather than a science because of people’s behaviors. Especially the client’s people.

All members of the client’s project team must agree to the project schedule to make sure the freelance consultant can complete the learning project on time and within budget. If just one team member on the client side causes delays, that throws the schedule off and then the time estimate no longer applies. The freelance consultant will need to create a Change Manage document to update the project’s Scope with new delivery dates. This will increase the project’s time and cost. It’s important for the client to get buy-in from all members of the project team to adhere to the schedule. For the freelance consultant, it’s important to have a backup plan in case of something happening on your side that causes delays.

Estimate Training: Use a Few Basic Metrics

You can “guesstimate” your potential project time and costs based on the following, long-existing metrics:

60 minutes of learner seat time = minimum 120 work effort hours (two months, minimum) = $6,000 to $15,000 project cost

Freelance consultants who earn a living wage don’t charge by the hour, but by project rate/cost. The consultant’s time writing and responding to email, taking client phone calls, and performing any QA effort is all billable time. Vendors need to build that into project rates and limit all client reviews to just two: an Alpha review and a Beta review, before the launch of the project. The client must sign off on the project at Beta review. If the client has changes at this phase, then the freelance consultant draws up a Change Management document with new target dates for the project and additional billable rates to make the changes.

150 written words of content = One minute of onscreen audio narration

If the client provides written content, the freelance consultant can estimate the time and cost based on the metric above used by professional voice over actors. (Yes, I am a VO talent.)

This metric works not only for calculating audio narration time, it can give you a “guesstimate” for an elearning course. If the client’s content comes to a total of 10,000 words, that’s approximately 66-67 minutes of seat time, or a little over an hour that the learner is actively in the learning activity (training course, etc.).

calculate voice over help estimate trainingI made a YouTube video to help freelance consultants and clients estimate training time for asynchronous elearning projects based on word count only. Select my blog post link below (or the image to the left) to learn more and view the video:

PowerPoint (PPT) Content = 2 to 4 hours of work effort for every PPT slide of content

Sometimes, the client will provide content within a PowerPoint presentation file. Let’s say the file has 24 PPT slides:

24 PPT slides * 4 hours = 96 hours, approximately

If there’s a lot of written content, plus images, I suggest calculating the estimate based on the higher four hours per slide for design and development.

Estimate Training: Keep Track of Project Hours

One elearning consultant in another state told me his “secret”. When he gets a brand new client, he does not work on a fixed, project fee basis, he always works on an hourly basis on the first project only with that client. This way he can track hours and then be able to provide an estimate for the client’s next project.

When a new client is new to elearning, my colleague said, he finds he’s also a coach as well as an ID and a developer, and the coaching takes up more of his time. He reports his time to the client weekly (or twice a month), and he said the reports help “reign in” the client when needed due to the client always changing things after a design was approved.

I’ve used this approach as well. I open up a simple Excel file and track hours that way. I include meetings, conference calls, and time spent communicating through e-mail messages. I know not everyone likes ADDIE, but each element is a good header for me to use to track time on a project for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.

Estimate Training Means Negotiation and Relationship

At the risk of sounding like I’m talking down to my readers, it’s important for clients to understand the freelance consultant’s point of view. Take a moment to watch this YouTube video on my blog post for a humorous yet sadly realistic look at the art of negotiations [duration 2:19]:

If you, the client, have a small budget, let’s say: under a couple of thousand US dollars, you may not be able to afford a skilled experienced U.S. freelance consultant on a full training design and development project. Instead, ask the freelance consultant for some coaching time, paid by the hour. The consultant will discuss your project and provide valuable guidance and ideas for you to implement in house.

Colleagues Share How to Estimate Training

Yesterday (May 17, 2010), I was asked how I estimate the number of hours it could take to design and develop learning activities for a training (workplace performance improvement) project.

My answer? “It depends.”

That said, my colleagues and I do have to provide clients with an estimated delivery date for projects, and so I fall back on a few helpful resources.

Your time is valuable, so let me share some links to great advice from mentors and colleagues. You can quickly select the links and see if their sites answer your questions. I agree with their approach and guidance.

estimate trainingGuy W. Wallace has been my “online Mentor”, and he has shared with us all an article he wrote on this topic. Please select to view Are Development Ratios for ISD Efforts Meaningful? (shared 24 March 2015).

More great information on how to estimate training time and costs comes from Bryan Chapman. View Bryan Chapman’s SlideShare presentation

And, select Bryan’s blog post on the same topic as well. Thank you, Bryan!

Another wonderful blog post, by Connie Malamed, the eLearning Coach, can help you. View Connie’s blog post.

Make sure you read the Comments under her post for additional resources:

Dr. Karl Kapp (on Twitter, @kkapp) wrote an article for ASTD (now ATD) in 2003, then revised it in 2009, along with co-author Robyn A. Defelice. This article is worth your study and application when you estimate time for your projects. For me, it is an invaluable resource, so I hope it helps you:

Coaching Service to Help You Estimate Training Time and Costs

If you’d like assistance with estimating your project, I encourage you to reach out and chat with me. I charge $125 for one hour of coaching and $75 for 30 minutes. We can use PayPal, or you can send me a check. Our coaching session begins when the deposit clears my bank. We can chat via phone call or Skype. I enjoy helping people, and I’ll share from my freelance consultant experiences from 2008 to the present.

Comments? Thoughts? Suggestions?

I’ve closed Comments on all blog posts, however, I still want to hear from you. I’m still available via my Contact page!

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20 thoughts on “How to Estimate Training Time and Costs”

  1. Jenise,

    Thank you for the article and for the links. They will prove invaluable to many like me who have to estimate scope and time, and like you, my answer is “It depends.” Often, there are way too many variables and all the balls seem to be in the air at the same time…:)

    The resource links are extremely useful too.

    What struck a chord with me is this: “One e-learning consultant in another state told me his “secret”. When he gets a brand new client, he does not work on a fixed, project fee basis, he always works on an hourly basis. When a new client is new to e-learning, he finds he’s also a coach as well as an ID and a developer, and the coaching takes up more of his time.”

    This is a very recent experience I had when I was in the USA. I will share this experience in my blog and cite this post.


    1. Hello, Sahana:

      Thank you for posting a comment. You are a member of my PLN, and if you ever want to come back and share more regarding estimates, please do!

  2. I can’t argue with the names you’ve got there, but here’s my take anyways. To come up with absolute estimates for a project especially if it’s large and you’re any more than two people, is prone to huge errors.

    This is where I find the research interesting. As you can see from the table, the number of hours to produce elearning vary considerably from project to project. It took 340 hours to develop this 10 min simulation (

    So it’s almost misleading to say it’ll take x hours to complete a certain piece of work. I like to use the following approach towards estimation and planning:
    * Break down the project into activities using Cathy Moore’s action mapping approach. If necessary, break down activities into smaller chunks of work.
    * Estimate ‘size’ (not development) of each activity using planning poker.
    * Hide estimates and lay activities out into 2 week iterations. Complete a few runs of this to determine your velocity. Number of points you can finish in an iteration.
    * Use your measure of velocity to extrapolate when you’ll finish the project.

    I can explain this further, but all I’ll say is that there’s sufficient research from Mike Cohn (Agile Estimation and Planning) that suggests absolute estimates to be flawed. So I strongly recommend relative estimation where you separate the notions of time and size.


    1. Hey, Sumeet!

      What a privilege to have you visit and Comment on this blog post. I really enjoy your tweets on Twitter.

      Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. I admire Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, and this is the first time I have heard of Planning Poker ( ). I’ll take a look at that tool.

      Again, I appreciate your visit, and welcome you to come back any time.

  3. Hi Jenise,
    Great topic! This is probably the toughest question I get from my boss and other executives at work. It can be very difficult to come close to an estimation before you have any kind of design in place. I think your suggestion of keeping track of time spent on projects is a great place to start. I often find myself thinking back to past projects but it’s always difficult to remember exactly how much time I spent on the project. I’m kicking myself for not keeping a spreadsheet like yours to track time.

    Also great comments by Sumeet. I’m a big fan of the action mapping approach. Once you have all of the activities “action mapped” it’s much easier to estimate time. The tough part is giving any kind of estimation before you have mapped out activities.

    Thanks for bringing up what I am sure will be a long standing question in the eLearning/Instructional Design field.

    1. Hi, Joe, thanks for visiting, and you’re welcome.

      In a way, it’s very comforting to know we all struggle. However, I am glad we do have proven ways to provide close-to-reality estimates for clients.

      My spreadsheets have been valuable tools to help me work through estimates with my clients. They truly are partners and collaborators in this process.

    1. Hi Patricia,

      Thank you for visiting my blog, and for the link-back.

      I’ll also enjoy the links to the articles you listed in your post.

      Estimating is an “art” more than a science. I wish you the best!

  4. Hi Jenise,

    This is continually a hot topic in training and development. There are so many variables that contribute. We tried to capture that sense in the 2003 and 2009 articles and data gathering. What we found was a wide arrangement of times and levels of efforts. While it might be difficult to provide absolute estimates as indicated in a comment above, unfortunately, clients both internal and external are always asking for estimates. But if you can work on an hourly basis or allow some type of range of hours, that is the best for all (convincing the client of that might prove difficult…)

    Another source your readers might find helpful is one from Bryan Chapman. He did a more extensive study and created a great slideshare slide deck on the topic. It is worth a look. I have included the link below.

    Thanks for carrying on the discussion, it is an important topic.

    1. Hi, Dr. Karl Kapp: Thank you for your reply. Yes, it’s best to work on an hourly basis I’ve found from my experience. I provide a project plan with estimates, but I do wish to continue this discussion. One thing I think we all can agree on is that there is no “One Right Answer” to estimating. Thank you for the URL to Bryan Chapman’s resource. Let’s keep on this topic and provide our colleagues with future resources! Best wishes to you.

    1. Hello, Guy!

      Thank you for your comment. You’re my online Mentor, especially via your Twitter account, and I’m grateful you posted the URL to your estimating resource. Your contributions to our field are truly priceless!

      Appreciate you, Guy W. Wallace!

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