How to become a general contractor

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Becoming a general contractor requires a combination of education and hands-on work experience. You might start off in a particular building trade and work your way up to general contracting, or obtain a degree in construction management first.
General contractor measuring a structure for a project.

You’ll also need some type of business plan that defines what your contracting business will do, what its business structure will be, how it will compete for business, and how you’ll finance your operations. Let’s take a look at what a general contractor does and how to become one.

What is a general contractor's role?

General contractors oversee the entire construction process from start to finish. They obtain building permits, order supplies from vendors, and hire everyone who works on a project from employees to subcontractors. A general contractor also makes sure that each project follows all building codes and regulations.

Some states and local governments require general contractors to have a general contractor’s license, depending on the type of work they do, while others just require them to be registered.

What steps can I take to become a general contractor?

Becoming a general contractor requires education and work experience in the building trades.

Here are a number of steps you can take to help you become a general contracting professional:

1. Meet the education requirements

You could meet the education requirements with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in construction management, where you’ll learn about the practical side and the business side of running a contractor business.

On a practical level, you’ll learn about construction methods, building materials, reading blueprints, safety, and building codes.

Construction business topics will include construction contracts, cost estimating, scheduling, accounting, business management, and related issues.

Alternatively, you might opt for a trade school that specializes in construction education, such as the Building Trades Academy, run by the North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU). The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) also runs a construction education program.

2. Get hands-on experience

Many general contractors start off in a particular trade, such as carpenter, plumber, electrician, or HVAC technician.

Whichever education path you choose, it will likely include hands-on training, typically through an apprenticeship. Unions and professional organizations offer apprenticeship programs, which can last up to four years.

As you gain knowledge and skills through your education and apprenticeship, you can also gain certifications in your particular trade.

3. Protect your business with the right insurance coverage

The right small business insurance is important for any general contractor. Some of these policies may be required by law, while others just make good business sense as they protect your bottom line.

Get business insurance for general contractors

4. Fulfill your state’s licensing requirements for general contractors

Each state has its own license requirements for general contractors. Some local governments require a license, even if their state does not. You may need a general contractor’s license from a state licensing board or your secretary of state.

The licensing requirements differ in each jurisdiction. The contractor must typically be 18 years or older, meet certain education and experience requirements, and pass a licensing exam.

You may need to show proof of insurance for your contracting business in your license application, and pay an application fee before you can take the contractor exam.

Here’s how four states handle their general contractor license requirements:

California requirements

California requires both licensing and registration to work on projects worth more than $500.

There are four types of licenses available [PDF]:

  • Class A General Engineering Contractor for projects requiring special engineering knowledge and skill.
  • Class B General Building Contractor for projects involving two or more unrelated trades (not including framing and carpentry).
  • Class B2 Residential Remodeling Contractor for projects involving existing residential wood frame structures, with nonstructural projects requiring at least three unrelated building trades.
  • Class C Specialty Contractor for different types of construction involving specialized building trades, among 41 separate classifications.

Applicants must meet these licensing requirements in California:

  • Have at least four years of experience, within your licensing classification, over the past 10 years.
  • Pass a trade exam, business exam, and law exam.
  • Complete a background check.
  • Have proof of general liability insurance (via a certificate of insurance, or COI), plus a surety bond or cash deposit of $25,000.

Florida requirements

Florida requires licensing and registration for general contractors.

There are two general types of licenses available:

  • A certified license allows a contractor to work anywhere in the state.
  • A registered license allows a contractor to work in certain areas.

There are also three different licensing classifications in Florida:

  • Residential contractor: Can work on residences of no more than two stories tall.
  • Building contractor: Construction, remodeling, or repair of residential and commercial buildings that are no more than three stories tall.
  • General contractor: No restrictions. At least one year of experience in construction is required. Able to work on structures four stories or higher.

Applicants must meet these licensing requirements in Florida:

  • At least four years of relevant work experience, or up to three years of education and a year of work experience.
  • Pass a trade exam, business exam, and law exam.
  • Provide a financial statement showing financial stability.
  • Proof of general liability and workers’ compensation insurance.

Georgia requirements

Georgia requires both licensing and registration for most projects worth $2,500 or more.

There are four different licenses available for general contractors in Georgia:

  • General contractor: For work on private, commercial, public, and other projects.
  • General contractor-limited tier: Same as the basic contractor license, but with a cap on the contract amount and the individual's net worth.
  • Residential-basic contractor: Limited to one- and two-family detached residential buildings, plus related structures no more than three stories tall.
  • Residential-light commercial contractor: Same as residential-basic, plus multifamily and multi-use light commercial buildings and related structures.

Each Georgia license has its own specific requirements. Every tier requires general liability insurance, though the amount that's required varies. Workers' comp is also required for business with three or more employees. General contractors must also show proof of financial responsibility, or a surety bond.

Texas requirements

Although Texas doesn’t require a general contractor’s license or registration, they are required by some city and county governments. Every business in Texas must also have a business license from the state.

Texas does require a state license to work in plumbing, electrical work, or HVAC installation.

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5. Gain industry certifications

Some certifications for general contractors may be required by the laws in your state, or local building codes. Even when not required, these certifications can help you stand out from your competitors by demonstrating your level of knowledge and experience as a construction manager.

The Construction Management Association of America

The Construction Management Association of America offers two certifications.

A Certified Associate Construction Manager (CACM) designation indicates a construction manager has the ability to lead certain aspects of a construction project on their own, but not an entire project.

Applicants must provide references that verify their experience and pass a comprehensive exam. CACMs are also required to recertify every three years through professional development or retaking the exam.

The CACM designation requires 12 months of responsible in charge (RIC) experience, at least two references to verify this, plus a four-year degree in construction experience or the equivalent.

A Certified Construction Manager (CCM) is a higher level accreditation. People with this certification have the ability to provide managerial oversight of construction projects, from planning and design to completion, while making sure they finish on time and on budget.

The CCM designation requires one of the following combinations of education and experience:

  • A four-year degree from an accredited school, plus four years of RIC experience as a construction manager.
  • A two-year degree, plus four years general construction experience, and four years of RIC experience.
  • Eight years of general construction experience and four years of RIC experience.

Applicants must take an in-person exam, provide at least two references, and recertify every three years through continuing education or retaking the exam.

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

A CAPM designation from the Project Management Institute isn’t strictly related to the construction industry, but many construction managers pursue this certification.

A CAPM certification indicates someone has managerial, project management, and leadership skills. Before passing a written test, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • A four-year degree, three years of experience leading projects, and 35 hours of project management education.
  • A high school diploma or associate's degree, plus five years of experience leading projects, and 35 hours of project management education.

Maintaining this certification requires time spent in continuing education classes, volunteering, or teaching.

American Institute of Contractors (AIC)

The American Institute of Constructors offers two levels of certification. Tests for each of them are administered in April and November of each year.

The Certified Associate Constructor (CAC) is the first level in its Constructor Certification Program. It was formally known as the Associate Constructor (AC) certification.

To qualify for the CAC exam, applicants must have graduated from or are scheduled to graduate from an accredited four-year construction management program. They must also have four years of qualifying experience or education, or a combination of the two.

The Certified Professional Constructor (CPC) designation is for established general contractors who have several years of project oversight experience.

To qualify for the CPC exam, applicants must have four additional years of experience beyond the CAC certification and have either passed the CAC exam or been exempted from it.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers two levels of safety education and certification. Some states require this certification to obtain a general contractor’s license. The OSHA courses are:

The OSHA 10-Hour Construction Industry Outreach Training Program and the OSHA 30-Hour Construction Industry Outreach Training Program.

The 10-hour course is intended for entry-level workers in the construction industry. It focuses on general safety awareness on a construction site. The 30-hour course is for construction managers, supervisors, and safety managers.

American Concrete Institute (ACI)

The building codes in your area may require a construction project to have at least one person certified by the American Concrete Institute. They have 30 certification programs to choose from.

National Association of Safety Professionals (NASP)

The National Association of Safety Professionals offers a Certified Safety Manager (CSM) course that teaches how to identify and avoid potential hazards, reduce risks, and enhance employee safety training.

CSMs typically have a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, plus at least five years of work experience in a health and safety role. This course takes approximately 40 hours and must be completed within six months of starting it.

6. Find a mentor and build your network

Finding the right mentor in any profession can help you grow your career. This is especially true in the construction industry.

An experienced mentor can offer their insight and guidance in how to succeed in the industry, and help you find new job opportunities.

Mentors can also help you develop your communication and leadership skills, while also providing networking opportunities.

How to find a mentor

In your search for a mentor, you should first identify your career goals and the skills you’ll need to achieve them. That can help you define the type of mentor you’re looking for.

You can then research mentorship programs within the construction industry. Construction companies and professional organizations may offer mentorship programs. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) can offer assistance with this.

if you’re just entering the field, you might ask educators and professors to help you find a mentor, or to mentor you themselves as you start your career.

You can also use social media networking platforms, such as LinkedIn, to connect with potential mentors. Joining LinkedIn groups based on your field and location can also help you in networking and making new business contacts.

The more people you meet, and the larger your network, the more you’ll be able to find new job opportunities and people you can reach out to for advice.

7. Attend industry events and trade shows

Trade shows and industry events offer a chance to learn more about your field, make connections, and build your network. There are many industry events throughout the year:

8. Join professional organizations

Your local chamber of commerce and other business groups can be a valuable resource for making connections in your area.

Joining industry trade groups and associations can help you make contacts within the construction industry itself. These include:

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9. Develop your business skills

Being a general contractor requires more than a knowledge of construction methods and building codes. You also need the type of business skills required of any small business owner.

Such skills include:

Project management

Project management involves planning and organizing of every phase of a project from start to finish. As a general contractor, this may include working with an architect or construction engineer on blueprints, getting the right permits, ordering materials, assembling a team, and mapping out each phase of a project to completion.

Budgeting

Your customers will expect you to deliver your projects both on time and on budget. While cost overruns and unforeseen contingencies may happen sometimes, it’s good to avoid them when you can. A lack of budgeting skills can hurt any small business owner’s chance of success, especially if you have a contract to fulfill and a deadline to meet.

Communication

From dealing with the client to managing your team, suppliers, and subcontractors, communication is crucial for every phase of a project. Make sure you keep your clients and your team aware of how each project is progressing, and any hang-ups along the way.

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Mike Mosser, Content Specialist

Mike spent several years as a reporter and editor covering politics, crime, and the world financial markets. He’s worked for several newspapers, a financial newswire, and a monthly magazine. As a copywriter, Mike has produced SEO-based content, marketing, public relations, and advertising work for a variety of companies.

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