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How to Become a Contractor

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Do you like building things with your hands, creating spreadsheets, managing employees, working with clients and doing something different every day? If so, you might have the right mix of traits necessary to be a successful general contractor. These professionals have to be part builder and part manager, so having a combination of technical and people skills is an important precursor to success as a contractor. Candidates just starting down the contractor career path have plenty of time to hone those skills, however. You'll have to get many years of experience under your tool belt before you can hang your shingle as a contractor.

What Contractors Do

General contractors manage all aspects of building projects. Say a homeowner hires a contractor to build an addition to her home. The contractor will arrange to get all the materials, will hire and oversee subcontractors to do specialized things like install HVAC systems and plumbing, manage the budget and serve as a point person for the homeowner to give updates and answer questions.

Typically, the contractor will also do at least some of the actual demolition and building work. How much of the work he does and how many subcontractors he needs to hire depends on the scope of the job, his current workload and his experience with different types of skilled trades. (For example, a contractor who has a carpentry background, may do the carpentry work himself instead of hiring a subcontractor to do it.)

The contractor may also draw up the plans for the build, although an architect will do the design work if it's a big project or local code requires that an architect be involved. Contractors are responsible for getting permits and adhering to local and state building code. Essentially, a contractor has to be a jack-of-all-trades who can manage an entire project and all the people involved in it.

Getting Started as a Contractor

There's no one set path that a contractor must follow to achieve this position. Some contractors start out as construction crew members in their teenage years and learn all the necessary skills on the job. Some inherit the family business and spend their entire lives learning from their older relatives.

Others go to college to study construction management. Having a bachelor's degree is not a requirement to become a general contractor, and contractors who work for themselves of course don't have to meet any particular educational background. But large construction and development companies that hire contractors typically make a bachelor's degree a prerequisite for these jobs, which is something to consider if you prefer to work for an established company rather than taking on all the risk that comes with going into business for yourself.

How to Get a Contractor Education

Even if you don't want to work for a company, there's a lot of value in attending "contractor school" of some kind. If attending a four-year school isn't a viable option, consider starting your contractor education by becoming an apprentice to a skilled trades person or general contractor. These are paid jobs that allow the apprentice to learn on the job from expert-level builders. Formal apprenticeship programs often include classroom training as well as field experience. Apprentices learn about business and technical subjects and apply what they learn to real-world projects.

A local construction company might have suggestions about where to find a contractor training program. Your local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. is another valuable resource. ABC offers formal apprenticeship programs around the country.

Skills That Contractors Need to Have

Even if you work for a major construction or development firm and don't have to find your own clients, customer service skills are important to a contractor's success. You'll have to work with dozens of people including wealthy clients, day laborers and even government officials when it's time to get permits. As a contractor, you'll have to be able to explain complicated situations to people who have no building experience. You'll have to settle disputes between subcontractors, reassure anxious or angry clients, negotiate prices with vendors and earn the respect of the people who work for you.

Contractors have to be highly organized and responsible with money, as the contractor is the person who oversees the purchasing of materials and the paying of subcontractors. They should also be willing to put in long hours and report to the job site on nights, weekends and holidays if emergencies happen.

And of course, a contractor has to have at least some knowledge of every trade that goes into a building project. Electrical, plumbing, HVAC, tile work, carpentry and framing, welding, drywall, even painting: a contractor has to know enough about each part of the building process to make sure that every part of the project is being completed in the right way.

Navigating Licensing Requirements

One of the trickiest parts of becoming a general contractor is navigating the licensing requirements. Every state has its own, and individual cities and specific industries have their own requirements. The licensing process is different in each state, too. In one place a contractor may only need to pass a multiple-choice test, while in others he'll have to pass multiple tests and submit an application and other information.

Some states have more stringent licensing requirements than others. In California, for instance, a contractor must have four years of experience before sitting for the state licensing exams, and that experience must be verified. Candidates must apply and receive approval before even being allowed to take the exams, which cover both law and business topics and trade topics. A similar process is used in other states.

Because contractor licensing requirements vary so much even between neighboring counties, it's essential that you research the specific laws that govern contractors in your area. The state department of labor or division of consumer affairs can shed some light, as can local construction industry trade groups.

What to Expect as a Contractor Salary

General contracting is hard, physical work that involves long days and often requires working in tough conditions. Unfortunately, it also tends to be somewhat unstable work, at least for self-employed contractors. They only make money when they have paying clients, and if the area is oversaturated with contractors or the economy is weak, work can be slow. (Here's one frightening statistic: the International Labour Organization estimated that 5 million construction workers around the world lost their jobs in 2008, due to the recession.)

But when the work is steady, contractors can make a fairly generous living. The median annual construction manager salary was $91,370, as of May 2017, which means that half of construction managers earned more and half earned less. It's important to note that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't distinguish salary differences between general contractors and construction managers. These two titles aren't used interchangeably within the construction industry, but the roles and responsibilities are very similar, and a general contractor may also act as a construction manager on some projects.

All in all, it's tough to predict exactly what a self-employed contractor's salary will be each year, because it depends on so many factors. Slow work, bad weather, unexpected business expenses and unreliable clients, can all take money out of a contractor's pocket. On the other hand, contractors may earn bonuses from satisfied clients or from their employers, as incentives for doing fast, high-quality work.