If you like working with your hands and enjoy spending time outdoors, a general contractor job might be right for you. In this role, you'll oversee day-to-day operations of construction projects, helping transform the vision for a new build into a tangible reality.
With the construction industry expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate through 2026, now is a great time to enter the field. Read on to find out how to become a general contractor.
What Is a General Contractor?
A general contractor oversees the many different components required to complete a building project. For example, take the case of building a residential house. There's the actual structure to create, which involves everything from digging and pouring cement for the foundation to building the walls and roof. Then, there are essential systems to install like plumbing, electrical, and HVAC.
This requires diverse subcontractors, including plumbers, carpenters, electricians, roofers, general construction workers, and more. The general contractor coordinates all these processes and people to ensure that the final construction project is in line with the plans laid out in building blueprints and architectural designs.
These construction management professionals further have the task of ensuring projects are completed on time and on budget. Finally, they must ensure that the final product is according to building codes, ensuring the structure's stability - and the safety of its future inhabitants. As you can see, the role comes with significant responsibility.
General Contractor Job Skills
A general contractor's job is diverse and challenging, with no two days being alike. One day, you might be in an architect's office to discuss business plans for an upcoming project. The next day, you might be on a current project site, getting your hands and work boots dirty as you liaise with construction workers on building progress.
To work as a general contractor, you need to have a contractor's license, which you get by passing a state exam. This ensures that you have the skills needed to complete the job safely. It covers the business side of construction (e.g., legal and financial topics) and the practical side of construction (e.g., trade skills).
Relevant skills and knowledge include:
- Legal regulations applicable to the construction field
- Financial management in construction
- Best practices for contracts, estimates, and bids
- Essentials about labor law
- Trade-specific knowledge in areas like site engineering, excavation, sitework, foundations, carpentry, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, and masonry
- Materials knowledge (e.g., how to work with metals and concrete correctly)
- Knowledge of reading building plans and blueprints
- Safety regulations and risk control for the construction field
These are just the hard skills it takes to become a general contractor. In addition to this knowledge, you also need a variety of soft skills to thrive in this multifaceted role. These are some of the most useful traits.
- Organizational skills: Good organization is needed to track the practical, financial, and legal aspects of a complex project.
- Attention to detail: Keeping track of the many different components that go into a construction work project requires a keen eye for detail.
- Communication skills: You must be able to effectively liaise with a diversity of professionals, from business people to construction workers.
- Good leadership: Contractors must motivate and coordinate diverse teams of subcontractors.
- Problem-solving: Construction projects don't always go as planned. If an issue arises, the general contractor must be prepared to find a solution.
Finally, a strong sense of responsibility and ethics is critical. Carelessness on your part can result in risky work environments or hazardous constructions that threaten others' well-being. For example, faulty electrical wiring can increase the risk of a house fire, endangering lives. Contractors must fully appreciate the implications of every detail of their work.
General Contractor Licenses Explained
All 50 states and Washington, D.C., require you to obtain a contractor's license before you can enter the field. That said, licensing processes vary between states.
For example, Alabama requires you to pass a business and project management exam and a trade exam. You must also meet certain criteria in terms of years of experience, financial well-being, and provide proof of liability insurance in good standing.
Note that some states have reciprocity agreements. For example, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee have such agreements with Alabama. If you've been licensed for three years consecutively in one of these states and want the same licensure class in Alabama, you simply have to fulfill a verification of license procedure instead of applying for a new license.
The National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies (NASCLA) provides a list of state licensing boards. Consult your local supervisory body about contractor license requirements, paperwork, and fees. In most cases, you will have to pass a licensing exam, prove work experience, and provide proof of insurance. Some states may also require you to pass a criminal background check.
In addition to meeting the minimum licensing requirements, you may want to join trade associations like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) to stay on top of best practices. It's also worth joining a local contractors association, which can boost credibility with clients and keep you in the loop regarding local and state legislation that may impact your work.
State-level contractor organizations can also be a valuable source of continuing education. For example, the North Carolina Licensing Board for General Contractors offers a diversity of continuing education coursework, covering everything from contract law to technology in construction.
How to Become a General Contractor: Step by Step
The precise path toward becoming a licensed contractor will vary depending on your location. However, the journey will generally follow these steps.
Step 1: Gain Necessary Contractor Skills
As mentioned, becoming a successful contractor requires a diverse mix of hard and soft skills. Just where can you acquire these? It all starts with a high school diploma or equivalent. Subjects like algebra, geometry, and drafting will lay the foundation for more complex skills to come.
You can gain work experience and learn valuable skills through an apprenticeship. This allows you to work under an experienced contractor for three to five years, giving you in-depth insights into the job and providing hands-on learning opportunities.
If you want to improve your odds of success for the future, a bachelor's degree in a field like engineering can help you stand out from the crowd and possibly pave the way for further advancement. However, this isn't an absolute must-have.
Step 2: Get Required Permits or Licenses
Check with your state's supervisory body and complete the required paperwork needed to acquire your general contractor's license. The requirements in California will differ from those in Florida, for instance. Further, you may also need to formally register your business with the state as a formal legal entity (e.g., a limited liability company).
Step 3: Establish Your General Contractor Business
Even if your state doesn't require you to establish a formal business entity, this is in your best interests. Establishing a legal entity like an LLC helps protect your personal liability in case of lawsuits (which do arise in the construction manager field). You can check with your local U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) office for details on business formation.
Step 4: Start Finding Clients for Your Business
With the administrative elements of your business in place, you can get to work. You'll need a professional website before you start bidding on projects. As your business grows, create a portfolio showing off your work and get testimonials from clients. It's also worth applying for construction awards, which can be a great way to stand out from the crowd.
Finally, don't discount the value of traditional marketing practices. Social media marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) to boost your website's visibility, and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising are just a few options. Networking is also an excellent way to boost your credibility and get new jobs. For example, certain architects may prefer to work with select general contractors they already know.
Step 5: Maintain Strict Oversight of Your Work
As your general contracting business takes off, make sure to maintain strict oversight of your work. This means both on-the-ground construction work and business operations. For example, you have to not only keep an eye on your subtractors but also maintain control over finances to make sure you don't go over budget.
Further, your clients will want to see a detailed accounting of materials used, subcontractors paid, and hours worked to ensure what you're charging is in line with agreed terms. Skynova's business templates can help you with money matters. You can get ready-made templates for invoicing, creating bids, issuing estimates, and more.
Step 6: Keep Your Finances on Track
Skynova's accounting software can further help you track invoices and expenses for your general contracting business. By keeping all of your money management in a single, streamlined system, you can simplify bookkeeping and tax filing in the future.
Manage Your General Contractor Business Finances With Skynova
Skynova helps small business owners like yourself stay on top of their money with user-friendly, straightforward financial products. Our business templates and accounting software can help you get organized, ensuring nothing slips through the cracks. When you're overseeing important building projects, it can be a relief to know that your back-office administration is under control. Find out more.
Notice to the Reader
This content is intended as general information and may not apply to your specific situation. Consult with your state's general contracting board regarding professional, legal, financial, and other requirements for general contracting businesses. When it comes to your business accounting, consult a certified accountant to ensure you're running your business in line with state and federal requirements.