How to Become a Contractor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a contractor. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career as a contractor.

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Do I Want to Be a Contractor?

The term contractor can refer to construction laborers or construction managers. A construction laborer works on construction sites, building projects and clearing sites, while a construction manager oversees the construction crews and takes care of scheduling and the financial aspects of construction projects.

Working as a construction laborer carries a higher risk of injury than do management positions. Contract laborers must take care with helmets, eyewear, earplugs, heights, lifting heavy objects, and other risk factors to stay safe. While laborers spend their hours completing the manual tasks associated with construction on a site, contracted managers split their time between supervising laborers on location and an office setting. Contractors are hired on a per-job basis and hours may exceed 40 per week, depending on weather, daylight, and deadlines.

Job Requirements

While no formal education is necessary in order to work as a construction laborer, those who would like to hold a management position are recommended to earn at least a baccalaureate degree. The table below outlines common requirements for contractors.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree for management positions*
Degree Field Construction management*
Experience No work experience for construction laborers, five years of experience in the field for construction managers*
Key Skills Initiative, management skills, strong verbal and written communication skills, knowledge of state building codes and insurance requirements*,**
Additional Requirements Reliable transportation**

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics*, job postings accessed in Nov. 2012**.

Step 1: Complete Education Requirements

Most contractors begin their careers as construction trade workers. This field encompasses numerous specialties, such as brick masonry, concrete finishing, metalworking, carpentry and drywall installation. Those interested in becoming contractors typically pursue education and training in their area of interest.

Success Tip:

  • Earn an undergraduate degree in a construction-related field. Although a specific degree is not essential to become a contractor, many employers prefer to hire applicants with an undergraduate degree in a related field.

Step 2: Gain Experience

Acquiring specific trade skills in masonry, carpentry and plumbing are integral steps to become a contractor. Prospective contractors also need practical construction experience. Those new to the construction field (particularly in an area that is considered a craft, such as carpentry) start out as apprentices, learning skills of the trade from more experienced members of the field. Some training or education programs may allow the completion of internships or apprenticeships in conjunction with training courses. Apprenticeships can also be found through labor unions and typically last 3-5 years.

Step 3: Seek Advancement

Once the basic construction skills are developed, prospective contractors should develop leadership skills. They can seek positions as management trainees or construction management assistants, through which they learn the managerial skills necessary for contractors. They also make industry contacts and network with construction workers.

Success Tip:

*Earn certification. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that certification is not necessarily required, it is important because it reflects on the individual's knowledge and skills. Look into professional organizations such as the American Institute of Contractors or Construction Management Association of America to explore your certification options.

Step 4: Get Licensed

The certification requirements for contractors vary by state, but most require licensure in an area of specialization, such as residential or commercial construction, or an area of specialty, such as plumbing or electrical work. Those interested in becoming contractors should check with their state licensing organization. Many organizations provide study guides and suggest educational programs or seminars that help prospective contractors prepare for the licensing exam.

Success Tip:

  • Research your state's licensure requirements. Most states have their own licensure requirements, so it is important for aspiring contractors to know exactly what their state requires of those who want a license. Licenses typically must be renewed periodically.

Step 5: Open a Business

According to the BLS, the construction industry has more opportunities to start one's own business than many other industries. These opportunities are available because start-up costs are low, the business does not require special offices and staff can be hired temporarily. Typically, a contractor starts with small projects in order to build a reputation and gradually acquires the equipment and tools necessary to complete jobs. New contractors must stay abreast of cost estimation trends to ensure that they do not under- or over-bid on projects.

Contractors must be good at developing relationships with potential clients, building inspectors and suppliers. In order to protect themselves legally and keep their finances in order, contractors may complete continuing education classes in legal issues and contract writing. They may also hire an accountant or business lawyer.

Success Tip:

*Develop strong communication skills. The success of a contractor's business is dependent, partly, on the ability to speak and develop relationships with clients and other individuals.

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