Becoming a General Contractor: Job Description & Salary Information

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A general contractor's median salary is around $86,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a general contractor is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a General Contractor

General contractors, also known as construction managers, orchestrate construction projects, from budgeting and planning to hiring and building. If you love managing people and creating things, you'll want to consider the highs and lows of this career path to see if it's right for you.

PROS of a General Contracting Career
Good employment growth (16% from 2012-2022)*
Freedom to be independent (approximately 57% of general contractors are self-employed)*
High salary (average earnings of $96,000)*
Variety of projects beyond homes and office buildings, such as restaurants, hospitals and schools*
Not a sedentary job (work may be in- and outdoors)*

CONS of a General Contracting Career
Potential periods of unemployment (construction jobs fluctuate with the economy)*
Some risk for injuries when dealing with dangerous tools and equipment (rate for work-related illness or injury is higher than average)*
Meeting deadlines can be stressful*
Long work hours (can be on call 24 hours)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

General contractors spend a great deal of time on construction sites, working alongside trade contractors to make sure everything's completed on time and within the budget. As a general contractor, you may need to travel if your office is offsite or you're managing multiple projects at once. You will also make sure that the construction methods are in compliance with regulations and codes and obtain the required licenses and permits.

Job Duties

If you become a general contractor, you'll subcontract different areas of each construction project, such as painting, electrical and plumbing. You and your crew may do some of this work, but this isn't typical. You might even need to bring on another general contractor for a particular phase. By dividing the project into well-organized steps, you can work on a timeline and make sure everything's on schedule. Cost-tracking reports and budget estimates will also be your responsibility, in addition to handling any construction problems or complaints.

You will also need to interpret regulations and contracts, as well as specifications and plans, while making decisions about construction proceedings. You will coordinate and monitor construction jobs, so time-management is a must in order to meet deadlines and function in a fast-paced environment. General contractors' schedules aren't predictable, due to such delays as jobsite emergencies and uncooperative weather. You can also be on-call, depending on the deadline, since you need to be on the job site until construction is finished.

Salary

Depending on whether you're a self-employed or salaried general contractor, your income will differ. The earnings also vary according to the location and size of the construction project. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most general contractors in 2014 earned a mean annual wage of about $96,000.

Education Requirements

You may be able to acquire a job as a general contractor with practical experience and an associate's degree. Per the BLS, though, having work experience and a bachelor's degree in a construction-related field has become the standard. This approach can also give you the best career prospects. You can pursue degrees in construction management, civil engineering and construction science, among other fields of study. You'll develop the skills necessary to become a general contractor, such as strong communication, organization, quality assurance and project management. General contractors commonly need to obtain licensure through their state in order to bid on contracts.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Relevant job ads for general contractors are more often found using the term construction manager. Many job postings look for applicants who have at least five years of experience in construction management. Real employers advertised the following sample profiles on Monster.com in February 2012:

  • An engineering company in Maryland is seeking a general contractor who can supervise all aspects of construction, such as designing, delivering materials and installing. Candidates should have 10-15 years of field experience. A bachelor's degree is preferred.
  • A wireless company in Connecticut is looking for a general contractor to monitor the safety of the sites and crew and maintain the equipment. Applicants should have industrial CPR and First Aid certifications as well as at least five years of construction experience.
  • A restaurant franchisor in Virginia is in need of a general contractor who can factor in cost, time and design to determine profitable locations for stores. A 4-year degree in project management, architecture or a similar field is required.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Having a bachelor's degree isn't enough to find a job as a general contractor. Applicants also need to have relevant experience, which can be acquired through an internship or by working another job in the industry. For example, you can start out as a plumber, electrician or carpenter. Even after you've earned your baccalaureate, you may continue your education by completing training and education programs specific to general contractors. The Associated General Contractors of America offers information for certificates and courses on safety and project management.

Become Certified

Another way for general contractors to beat their competition is by becoming certified. The American Institute of Constructors offers two levels of certification for professionals who may or may not have a degree, but who want to establish themselves as experienced and knowledgeable in the field. The Construction Management Association of America also administers a professional credential to individuals wishing to be recognized for their expertise.

Alternative Careers to Consider

If you enjoy working in construction, but managing all the moving parts of a project isn't for you, working as one of the subspecialty trade contractors who are hired by general contractors may be a better fit. They receive on-the-job, apprenticeship or vocational training in their field, such as heating or bricklaying. Licensure is required for some positions, like plumbers and electricians, but not all of them. While the number of construction-industry jobs as a whole was expected to increase by 18% in the 2010-2020 decade, specialty trade contracting positions were anticipated to have the most new jobs, according to the BLS.

Alternatively, you can work as a construction and building inspector. You could specialize in residential or commercial buildings, working to make sure the general structure and components meet codes and regulations, or you could focus your work on electrical, mechanical or plumbing inspections, among other areas. Education requirements vary, since some states require licensure or certification, but construction and building inspectors generally need a high school diploma with considerable on-the-job experience. They also need to familiarize themselves with building standards and codes. While the BLS reported the same job outlook for this career as for general contractors, the salary for building and construction inspectors was significantly less, with an average wage of about $55,000 in 2011.

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