Difference Between a Contractor & Subcontractor

Contractors oversee the work of subcontractors and work directly with clients. Contractors usually have skills in a construction, agricultural or computer profession and hire specialized subcontractors to help complete projects.

Comparing Contractors to Subcontractors

Residential, commercial and industrial buildings require many skilled workers such as stonemasons, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. These jobs would fall under the category of subcontractors. A contractor manages the work of all these workers so that the building project is completed in an efficient and timely manner. Contractors are employed to manage farm projects, transportation projects and computer projects as well.

Responsibilities of a Contractor vs. a Subcontractor

A contractor is in charge of interacting with the client to provide a cost estimate and timeline for building projects. They keep the client updated about the process and solve problems that may arise with permits and building codes. There are several subcontractors employed for the building project. Each subcontractor has a specific role such as building the foundation, framing the walls, running wiring, and installing pipes, but the contractor supervises the work of all these professionals. In addition, the contractor is often self-employed and determines which projects they want to tackle. Contractors often have a skilled background in a trade and like doing a specific part of the project, but hire subcontractors to fill in on the other aspects of the job.


A contractor works directly with clients, architects and engineers to plan projects. Planning includes identifying the materials to be purchased, the attributes which best fit the client's needs, the estimated cost of the project and a timeline for completion. For example, in construction the building plan that contractors design outlines that stonemasons start work first because a wall cannot be built until the foundation is poured. In addition, the contractor has the responsibility for making adjustments to the plan if there is an accident, a storm, or another problem that may arise. The goal of the contractor is to make sure the job is completed within a given budget and at a specific time in spite of unforeseen circumstances. In addition to participating in some of the actual construction, they manage contracts, organize the workers and often inspect the quality of the work before official inspectors sign off on the project.

Job responsibilities of a contractor include:

  • Identifying the type of project to be completed
  • Submitting paperwork for permit approval
  • Hiring & supervising the work of subcontractors
  • Ordering building materials
  • Reporting progress to clients
  • Working with lawyers or government officials to make sure all building requirements are satisfied


A subcontractor is a general term for any professional with a specific skill set working on a project under the direction of a contractor. Each phase of construction from clearing the land to landscaping the finished project requires a different subcontractor. These jobs each have their own set of tools such as trowels and cement mixers for pouring the foundation, saws for cutting lumber, circuit breaker boxes for arranging wiring, pipe cutters for laying pipe, and shovels for installing sod grass. For each of these, the subcontractor must have skills and an ability to work with the other subcontractors to make sure their part fits with the others.

Job responsibilities of a subcontractor include:

  • Following the blueprint guidelines for a specific building project
  • Communicating with the contractor
  • Providing quality craftsmanship to the standards set by contractor
  • Ensuring all safety protocols are followed

Related Careers

A contractor's job is similar to a project manager's because they communicate with and solve problems for many people from the client to the workers. A project manager sets goals, establishes a timeline and assigns tasks to others in the business. Many subcontractors have multiple skills similar to building maintenance technicians who maintain commercial or industrial facilities.

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