The world of construction revolves around contractors, from design to building, repairs to remodeling, interior to landscaping, and all things in between. On any given jobsite, most of the people either work as a subcontractor or are contractors themselves—sometimes both.
This guide will walk you through the differences between the roles played by contractors and subcontractors. We’ll also go over what you need to know as a business owner when it comes to getting your contracting platform off the ground.
Let’s get started.
Contractor vs. Subcontractor: What’s the difference?
A contractor can be defined as an individual or company hired to complete specific projects or can work on a freelance basis. Typically, a contractor works under a contractual agreement to provide services, labor or materials to complete a project.
Subcontractors are businesses or individuals that carry out work for a contractor as part of the larger contracted project. Subcontractors tend to report solely to the person with whom they have the contract and rarely interface with the client.
The biggest difference between a contractor and a subcontractor relates to hierarchy and workflow. Subcontractors are contractors who are hired (contracted) by other contractors.
That’s a mouthful! But the underlying relationship is pretty simple:
- Owners hire (contract) contractors
- Contractors hire (subcontract) subcontractors
In construction projects—from kitchen renovations to high-rise developments—an agreement is reached between the owner of the property and one or more contractors. Those contactor(s) may then hire other workers, or other contractors, to help get the job done.
As a contractor, insurance is important, but by hiring subcontractors, it is important to note that you expose your business to additional risk, which can be mitigated with additional contractor insurance.
Who’s who on a jobsite?
Given the diversity of scope and scale of construction work, no two projects are the same. This means roles can be case-specific.
You can be a contractor on one project and a subcontractor on another. You can begin working on one project as a subcontractor and then find yourself subcontracting out your own portion of the project to another subcontractor.
So, let’s get into some technical definitions of the major players on any given jobsite.
What is a Contractor?
A building contractor is an individual or business that obtains construction contracts and sees them through, delivering what’s contractually required. Typically, a contractor is someone with experience in the construction field, often within a given trade (an electrician, plumber, etc.).
These contractors sometimes work independently on smaller-scale projects. On most projects, though, they delegate work to others. But at a base level, contractors are devoted to two primary functions:
- Securing contracts – Contractors negotiate contracts for work they’ll deliver. Before they can get work done, though, contractors must find the work. To obtain projects, contractors:
- Establish a strong reputation so clients solicit work
- Network and advertise their services to find work
- Delivering finished projects – Once a contract is secured, the contractor needs to deliver the work that’s been agreed upon. To do so, contractors use some combination of:
- Their own handiwork or hired laborers
- Subcontractors and their own work or laborers
Although a building contractor typically has experience in at least one construction trade, they are often hired to be general contractors and oversee various parts of the job, including things outside their specific expertise.
That’s where subcontractors come in.
General contractor vs. subcontractor
When securing a project, a contractor may assume ownership of all the work. In cases where the contractor takes on sole responsibility, they are often referred to as general contractors, or GCs.
In these cases, the owners hire one contractor (the GC). All subcontractors typically work for the GC, not the owner.
So, here’s how the hierarchy looks:
General contractor (GC) – This is the main contractor on a jobsite, hired by the owner to completely oversee the project from start to finish. The GC is involved in some combination of:
- Performing the work directly
- Hiring subcontractors and workers
- Managing the work of subcontractors and their own hires
Subcontractor – Reporting to the GC, a subcontractor is typically hired for a specific portion of the job, usually related to an area of expertise. Depending on the jobsite, subcontractors might be able to hire their own workers, or may use workers hired by the GC. Examples of subcontractors include:
- A licensed electrician tasked with all electrical work for a building
- A demolition company tasked with demolishing and removing all waste from a property
Subcontractor vs. independent contractor
In addition to GCs and subcontractors, another role commonly referred to on a job site is an “independent contractor.” This difference in language reflects a different organizational structure in which owners hire multiple contractors.
Not all construction sites have one GC in charge of all other subcontractors. In some cases, ownership decides to hire multiple contractors directly, rather than one GC, to maintain more direct control over operations. In these cases, the managing function of the GC is taken on by a project manager who hires out independent contractors.
Here’s what those roles look like:
- Project manager – This role is like a GC, but on the ownership side. A project manager is typically a representative or employee of the owner. This manager hires various contractors and workers and oversees their own work and hiring (if applicable).
- Independent contractor – A contractor who’s hired alongside other contractors in a horizontal (equal) relationship to each other, rather than the vertical relationships between contractors and subcontractors.
What every contractor needs
Whatever role you play on a jobsite, your work as a contractor is your business. As such, there are certain essentials you need to have in place to get work and complete it safely. Some of the most important ones are:
- Registration and licensing or certification
- Networking, such as a strong online presence
- General liability (CGL) insurance to protect you and your business
On that last point, it’s important to note that construction is an inherently risky field of work. From the various physical tasks it requires, the sizes and shapes of materials worked with, to conditions like heights and occupational hazards (steam, gas, etc.), there are always dangers.
All those factors, and more, make CGL insurance extremely important for everyone involved. But no one wants to pay for insurance when they’re not working.
Here at Thimble, we’ve revolutionized insurance coverage so that you can buy a policy that works when you do—choose a plan that goes by the hour, day, or month. Why pay for coverage for a whole year when a project is only slated to last a week?
Create a tailored contractor insurance policy based on when you need it and protect your business from third-party claims of:
- Bodily Injury
- Property damage
- Personal and advertising injury
The policy also provides claim investigation and a defense of the claim, whether valid or not. Finally, coverage through Thimble is fast and easy to set up. Click on “Get a Quote,” or download the Thimble app, answer 3 simple questions, and you can get covered in under 60 seconds.
How to add subcontractors to your insurance policy
Adding subcontractors to insurance coverage varies based on your insurance provider. In order to add subcontractors to your contractor insurance, you simply call your insurance provider and give the individual’s name and business name (if applicable).
With Thimble, some subcontractors can be covered as additional ‘crew members’ on your policy. You can easily add them to your CGL coverage by contacting our Customer Success Representatives or submitting quickly through the app.
Once you have submitted the subcontractor information to your policy, the next step is to print out your new certificate of contractor insurance to share with your client – easy as that.
Building your business
It’s always important to stay current with terminology in any industry you’re looking to enter or grow within. Hopefully, this guide has been helpful in understanding where your construction business—existing or potential—stands in relation to your peers and competitors.
Even more important is making sure you’re covering all your bases to ensure your business is legitimate and secure. That’s true in any case: whether you’re a handy homeowner looking to expand your professional experience, a seasoned drywall installer looking to expand, or a contractor in business long enough to spot code violations from a mile away.
Get covered with Contractor Insurance so you can get back to building homes and your professional future.