Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Median—$69,870 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
General contractors coordinate and supervise the work at construction sites from early development to final product. They own the contracting firms in charge of construction, or they may be salaried employees of property owners and developers. Sometimes they have different titles, such as construction managers or project engineers.
While some general contractors undertake many kinds of work, most of them specialize in one type and size of construction project. Residential contractors may oversee some commercial buildings, for instance, but they rarely take on large-scale public-works projects, such as bridges, sewage systems, and industrial sites.
Before contractors begin a project, they must submit a bid or price quote to the individual, company, or government agency that will pay for it. To make an accurate bid, contractors study the building plans and specifications while keeping in mind material, labor, and safety considerations. They may hire a cost estimator to do this job. The lowest bid is usually, but not always, accepted. Other factors, such as the quality of a contractor's past work, may be taken into account.
Construction projects are usually a series of tasks, each completed by a different subcontractor. The bulldozer operators clear and level the land, so the structural steelworkers or the carpenters can put up the skeleton of the building. General contractors hire or supervise the hiring of the subcontractors who do each of the many tasks. Contractors must communicate well because they need to motivate many different types of people.
Contractors either own or rent the equipment needed for the job. They contact companies that supply concrete, steel, electrical equipment, lumber, and other building materials to arrange shipments, and they get the necessary permits and licenses for construction and see that building codes and safety regulations are followed. At all steps in the construction, contractors track and control expenditures.
Depending on the job, contractors may have several people to help with management details. They may hire estimators to help prepare bids, expediters to oversee material shipments, various job supervisors, office staff, and others. However, contractors shoulder the full responsibility and risk involved.
Education and Training Requirements
The most successful contractors get a good education and plenty of experience in construction. Many earn bachelor's or master' degrees in construction science, construction management, or civil engineering. The colleges or universities that award these degrees offer such courses as site planning, design, construction methods, contract administration, business and financial management, and information technology. Graduates of four-year programs start out as assistants to schedulers or cost estimators. Graduates with master's degrees, especially those with experience in construction, typically become construction managers or contractors in very large construction companies.
Many contractors attend training programs sponsored by industry associations. Others develop their skills at two-year colleges with programs in construction science or construction technology.
Some contractors get their basic experience by working in the offices of established contractors. Others start as apprentices in one of the construction trades and work their way up. High school students who want to be contractors should take mathematics, science, business mathematics, drafting, plan reading, and English.
Some contractors complete certification programs to show they have the knowledge, abilities, and experience for the job. Both the American Institute of Constructors and the Construction Management Association of America offer the voluntary certification programs. Applicants must meet the specific requirements of each organization and take written examinations.
Getting the Job
College, trade school, and technical school placement offices can provide job leads. Construction companies may need to hire assistants. They are listed in the Yellow Pages under the headings "Contractors—General" and "Contractors' Equipment and Supplies." State employment offices, newspaper classified ads, and the Internet are other sources of job information. Because experience in all parts of the industry is so important, any job in the industry can be a good first step toward a contracting career.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Employment of general contractors and other construction managers should increase about as fast as the average for all jobs through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of jobs available will exceed the number of qualified candidates, especially in heavy construction. Many of the nation's aging bridges and highways need to be repaired or replaced. Other jobs will open up when contractors retire or leave the occupation.
More than half of all contractors run their own companies. Increased business depends on their knowledge, skill, and determination. Given the ups and downs of the economy, they have to stay flexible.
Tension and pressure go with the job. Contractors usually work at dirty, noisy job sites, which can be anywhere from high-rise buildings to wilderness areas, and solve dozens of problems each day, often making decisions quickly. They may be on call twenty-four hours a day to deal with the effects of bad weather and emergencies at the job site.
Where to Go for More Information
American Institute of Constructors
PO Box 26334
Alexandria, VA 22314
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 400
Arlington, VA 22201
Construction Management Association of America
7918 Jones Branch Dr., Ste. 540
McLean, VA 22102
National Center for Construction Education and Research
PO Box 141104
Gainesville, FL 32614
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings depend on the size of the firm and the number of projects the company undertakes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2004 the median income of construction managers was $69,870 per year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $42,120 per year. The highest 10 percent made more than $126,330 per year. Contractors who are salaried employees usually receive such benefits as health insurance and vacation pay. Those who are self-employed must provide their own benefits.