How to become a general contractor

California residents who want to know how to become a general contractor in California must first understand the definitions, exemptions and mandatory requirements. Any business or person who works to construct or alter a building, parking facility, roadway, excavation, railroad property or other structure must be licensed by the CSLB, or Contractors State License Board. This requirement holds for any project where labor and materials cost $500 or more. Reasons to get a contractor’s license in California include:

  • It’s the law.
  • Contractors can sue customers in court when they don’t pay.
  • You can qualify for discounts from suppliers.
  • Licensed contractors can join builders’ associations that offer job postings, group insurance plans and planning rooms.
  • Contractors can legally advertise their services.
  • You can pull building permits.

In California, there are four licensing classifications:

  1. A: General Engineering
  2. B: General Building
  3. C: Specialty Classes
  4. D: Limited Speciality Classes

The mandatory requirements for contractor licensing include being 18-years-old or older, having a valid Social Security number and demonstrating the skills and experience to manage the daily activities of a construction business. Both individuals and business entities can be licensed.

General Contracting Overview

Commercial general contractors oversee the construction, development, updating, and remodeling of business structures.

The “general” qualifier simply means that they are proficient in multiple construction disciplines but do not specialize in one type. Instead, acting as a manager and hiring specialty contractors to perform specific tasks such as masonry and carpentry.

But this fast-paced, fast-growing job is dynamic, extending into duties such as preparing cost estimates, hiring laborers and subcontractors, managing properties, choosing construction methods, checking local regulations, budgeting, and client relations.

Where do contractors spend their time?

Their time is spent between office and field work and often extends beyond regular business hours depending on scheduling delays or other unforeseen circumstances.

How do general contractors get into the field?

Many commercial general contractors are introduced to the field through their family, and it’s common to hear them speak proudly about their multi-generational history in construction. But for those without a built-in career plan, there are other ways to learn how to design and construct industrial buildings.

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If you’re new to the profession, or have worked as a construction laborer and wish to boost your career, you have plenty of educational options; from apprenticeships, internships, and work-study programs to formal education via certifications and master’s programs.

Certificates and degrees in Construction Management and its related fields are offered by a number of universities and colleges nationwide, including University of Washington.

What are the educational requirements for commercial general contractors?

General Contractor Construction companies increasingly favor hiring professionals with a background in construction as well as formal education that includes applied knowledge in construction management.

But, departments recommend that students have experience in the commercial construction field before applying or at least complete basic courses in construction contracts and methods.

As engineering technology changes, employers sometimes emphasize possessing specialized knowledge in:

  • Project Control
  • Building Design
  • Cost Estimation
  • Building Codes and Standards
  • Contract Administration
  • Math and Statistics
  • Commercial Real Estate

Employment Qualifications for Construction Management

Degree Licensing Required Skills
Bachelor’s or Master’s of Construction Management, Building Science, or Civil Engineering State Contractor’s License, registration with the State’s Department of Labor and Industries Knowledge of construction laws and methods, planning software, and technical drawings. Cost estimation software knowledge, business leadership, attention to detail, analytical skills, problem-solving and decision-making, initiative, time-management, writing.

What Commercial Contractors Do

Managing a construction project from start to finish requires wearing multiple hats. Duties can include:

  • Client consultation, including explaining contracts and reporting on progress and budget
  • Refining construction plans
  • Estimating and controlling costs
  • Supervising multiple public, commercial, and industrial projects at once
  • Working with architects and civil engineers
  • Responding to delays, emergencies, and other setbacks
  • Hiring specialty contractors like masons, electricians, structural steel workers, landscapers, painters, excavators, and carpenters
  • Hiring and scheduling trade laborers
  • Interactions with lawyers, government officials, and city inspectors to ensure regulations and permitting requirements are met
  • Occasionally collaborating with other construction managers for different phases of a project
  • Scheduling and time allocating to ensure on-time materials delivery and project completion
  • Compliance with local building codes, laws, accident prevention, and other safety techniques
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Types of Jobs

The difference in average job size also means that a handyman and general contractor will end up doing very different types of jobs. A lot of people call in a handyman when they’ve accumulated a list of small repairs around the house, whereas they’ll call a contractor when they want to begin one large project. Take a look at the examples below and think about which ones seem more like your type of work:

Are you a Handyman or General Contractor?

general contractor working

Before you decide how to advertise yourself, here are a few simple questions to help guide you in examining the handyman vs. general contractor question:

  • How much time and money do you want to invest at the beginning?
  • Do you like being independent, or do you prefer building and managing a team? If you prefer independence, being a handyman could be right for you, while general contractors often manage teams.
  • Are you willing to spend days, weeks, or even months on each project, or do you prefer to finish a task quickly and move on to the next one? General contractors often spend a long time on each project, while handymen can finish multiple projects in a shorter period of time.

Answering these questions can help you get an idea of what sets you apart from your competition, which you can then communicate to your potential customers. Deciding whether you call yourself a handyman or a contractor is just the first step in that process.

Journey-Level Experience

Contractor licensing applicants must have four years of journey-level experience within the last 10 years. Journey-level experience includes work as a journeyman, foreman, contractor, builder/owner or supervising employee of a general contractor. You can also receive credit in the following ways:

  • Up to 1.5 years credit for receiving an Associate of Arts degree from an accredited institution.
  • Up to two years credit for receiving a four-year degree in economics, business, math, physics or degrees related to trades or crafts related to construction.
  • Up to three years credit for a Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship in a contacting-related field.
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Exemptions to Contractor Licensing

There are exemptions to mandatory licensing in California, and these include the following situations:

  • Minor Work – Work and repairs that cost less than $500 for both materials and labor are exempt from licensing.
  • Public Employees – Those public employees who work on projects are exempt from licensing.
  • Owner Builders – People who own property can work on it without a license.
  • Business Employees – Employees can work on projects where they are wholly directed by others. Those who can direct this work include licensed contractors and property owners.
  • Structural Improvements – Owners can repair or improve their property without a license if they don’t intend to sell the property within a year.
  • Manufacturer Exemption – Manufacturers that produce or install finished products that don’t become a part of a finished structure care are exempt from licensing.

Online Assistance

You can find information, study guides and online forms that are easy to fill out at the CSLB’s interactive website. Downloadable forms are also available at

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