How to Pivot from Being a Specialized Contractor to a General Contractor


From carpentry, to plumbing and electrical work, large residential construction projects require the coordination of various subcontractors with specialized skills. A complex crew is much like an orchestra and in that scenario, the general contractor serves as the conductor. The duties of a general contractor include managing projects from start to finish, determining the scope of work, acquiring permits, defining and monitoring budgets, hiring subcontractors, supplying materials and equipment, and maintaining communication among teams.

Being a general contractor is demanding work, but if you are a subcontractor impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, you may be thinking about broadening your horizons and making the transition to general contracting. It’s not always an easy path, but general contractors are in high demand and can earn six-figures annually depending on the market. If you are considering a change, here are some tips to help you make the journey and stand out while doing it. 

Go the Scholarly Route

While there are many paths to becoming a general contractor, none of them are instant. Every state has different requirements and the skills to pass a particular state’s licensing exam can be gained through a variety of experience. This includes apprenticeships, on-the-job training, trade school work, industry association certifications, or formal education at colleges with undergraduate and graduate degrees in construction management.

Industry associations like the Construction Management Association of America and the American Institute of Constructors provide industry training and education that can help contractors acquire a CCM (Certified Construction Manager) or CPC (Certified Professional Constructor) certificate – a pathway to many general contracting jobs. Manufacturers like CertainTeed also offer certification and training programs in various disciplines to help contractors gain the core competencies needed to take their construction training to the next level.

Pound the Pavement

Contractors tend to be resourceful people and while an academic route may work for some, it is possible to become a general contractor based on experience and determination alone. It may mean digging deep, evaluating your own skills, and exploring other markets where you can be profitable.

Do you install in new construction, but not in remodeling? Perhaps it’s time to diversify and reach out to other markets. Are you or your employees skilled at trades you don’t currently offer? Perhaps it’s time to add to your service offering to expand your knowledge base while continuing to make money. Partnering up with a non-competing tradesperson is also a great way to cross-train and expand your knowledge while gathering additional leads you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

In addition to these ideas, it’s always good to work old leads. If a client trusted you and was pleased with your work on a midsize or less complicated job, they will likely trust you to take on a larger or more complicated job in the future. When reaching out, be sure to let former clients know about any additional skills or services you have added to your offering.

Work on Your Customer Service Skills

Since they manage nearly every aspect of a construction project, general contractors must specialize in customer service. In addition to working directly with clients, general contractors also negotiate project budgets, hire subcontractors, and maintain safe working conditions for all who access the jobsite. In contrast, subcontractors may be highly experienced in their particular area of expertise, but generally have little or no contact with the client.

To become a general contractor, you have to start thinking and acting like one. The defining trait of a good general contractor is proactivity. General contractors stay on top of every aspect of their project and preemptively handle customer concerns to maximize efficiency and minimize delays. Many subcontractors, on the other hand, wait to hear from their general contractor or field superintendent before they clear their schedule or start getting submittals in order.

In training to become a general contractor, subcontractors should treat every project like their own. This may involve visiting work sites early, staying in close contact with project supervisors, and keeping tabs on the progress of the project, Subcontractors can also stand out by keeping their work areas clear of trash,respecting the space, property, and work of other subcontractors, and bringing leads to  their general contractors whenever possible.

If you treat your general contractors and fellow subcontractors like important clients, it can open up a world of opportunities.

Market Your Experience

Being a general contractor is about seeing the big picture and thinking beyond tomorrow. Apply the same philosophy to your subcontractor business by marketing it properly

Think of yourself as a business, not just a hired hand or a set of skills. Identify the strengths that set you apart from other contractors in your trade, determine your audience, and figure out the best way to reach them (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Angie’s List, direct referrals).

Deliver content marketing that allows you to tell your story. Create a website that illustrates your passion for the trade and demonstrates your work. In addition to looking for new clients, engage with satisfied customers and see how you can leverage those existing relationships. People who know the quality of your work can be highly influential in positioning subcontractors for the kinds of larger projects that prepare them to be general contractors.

Becoming a general contractor takes a lot of work, business sense, and technical knowledge. Don’t neglect your soft skills, however, as you will need them for the road ahead. No matter what path you choose, take advantage of learning opportunities, present the best version of yourself, and don’t be afraid to work your connections.


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