How to Become a General Contractor in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a general contractor. Learn about degree requirements, salary and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Construction Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information At a Glance

A general contractor oversees every aspect of a construction project. Many contractors get to their position by gaining experience, an apprenticeship or by completing an undergraduate degree program. The table below provides an overview of helpful information about this career, including education and job outlook.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree; apprenticeships are also available
Education Field of Study Construction management, engineering, construction science
Key Skills Leadership, interpersonal, problem-solving, time management
Licensure/Certification Licensure is required in some states and if managing large projects; Certification is optional
Job Growth (2012-2022) 16% (for all construction managers)*
Median Annual Salary (2014) $59,152 (for all general contractors)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Is a General Contractor?

A general contractor is responsible for planning, budgeting and coordinating construction projects, whether of commercial and residential buildings or of roads, bridges, sewers and other infrastructure. Their duties include creating budgets, scheduling jobs, hiring subcontractors and arranging for materials transport. They often consult with architects, engineers and owners about the evolving needs of a project to make sure it stays on time and on budget. On very large jobs, management duties for site preparation, landscaping, road construction and building construction may be handled by several different contractors.

Step 1: Path One: Work in the Industry

You can advance to a general contractor position after accumulating substantial work experience as a carpenter, plumber, mason or electrician. Internships, field jobs and cooperative education programs are possible methods of gaining experience. You could also enter an apprenticeship, which are administered by trade associations, trade unions and local employers. They last 3-5 years and couple on-the-job experience with a designated number of hours per year of classroom instruction.

Step 2: Path Two: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), general contractors with bachelor's degrees in construction management or a related area increasingly receive hiring preference by industry employers. Bachelor's degree programs in construction management draw concepts from business management and structural engineering to teach you the process of managing a construction project from beginning to end. Coursework will develop your skills in value analysis, cost estimating, site planning and scheduling. Other topics covered include building codes, construction technology and construction methods. A bachelor's degree is typically earned in four years.

Step 3: Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a master's degree in construction management can improve your employment prospects, especially during slow times in the construction industry. Master's degree programs enhance the financial, organizational and technical competencies you need to oversee a project or to administer a construction company. Courses involve the study of such advanced topics as bidding, negotiation, labor relations, conflict resolution and business plan implementation. Master's degree programs are typically completed in two years.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

You have three options for certification. The Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) awards the Certified Construction Manager (CCM). The American Institute of Constructors (AIC) awards the Associate Constructor (AC) for entry-level general contractors and the Certified Professional Constructor (CPC) for advanced contractors. All are voluntary.

You can qualify for the CCM certification exam in one of several ways. The baseline requirement is 48 months of experience as a construction manager. In addition, you're eligible if you have a bachelor's or master's degree in construction management, construction science, engineering or architecture. You're also eligible if you have an associate's degree and four years of experience in construction or if you have no postsecondary education and eight years of experience in construction. The exam lasts five hours and tests you in such areas as project management, cost management and time management.

The AIC has no minimum education requirements for either the AC or CPC designation. You can substitute qualifying work experience if you have no formal education. Eligibility for the AC certification exam requires either four years of experience, four years of education or a combination of experience and education. CPC eligibility depends in part on whether you have status as an AC. If you're AC certified, you'll need four years of work experience, education or a combination as well as two years of experience managing construction projects. If you aren't AC certified, you'll need eight years of work experience and two years of construction management experience.

Step 5: Obtain a License

In addition to bonding and insurance, you'll need a license in some locales. Licensing requirements vary widely by state, county or even city. Some authorities mandate the passage of a licensing exam. Others limit eligibility to contractors who work on projects above a stated cost threshold. Some only license residential or commercial builders or HVAC, electrical and plumbing contractors. Some specify levels of education and years of work experience.

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