What Is a Subcontractor? (Plus Types and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 4 August 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A subcontractor is a professional that a company or contractor hires to work on a large or one-off project. They're usually experts in a specific area and help speed up project productivity while improving quality. Understanding what they do can help you know if it's the right job for you and make the necessary preparations to become one. In this article, we discuss what a subcontractor is, list some steps on how to become one and list some types of subcontractors.

What is a subcontractor?

A subcontractor is a specialised professional usually experienced in a specific aspect of a project. They often have good general skills and know how to use various tools for different projects. They may collaborate with contractors to complete different project elements to improve quality and speed up processes. You can often find them in industries such as administration, construction, creative, engineering, health care, retail or technology.

Related: What Does a Building Surveyor Do? (With Salary and FAQs)

Differences between a contractor and subcontractor

While both roles may sound similar, a contractor is someone a client hires to complete a project, while the contractor hires a subcontractor directly if they require extra help. Here are some differences between the two:

  • Type of work: Contractors usually perform managerial work and oversee an entire project, while subcontractors are more likely to focus on a single type of work.

  • Job responsibilities: Contractors typically manage clients and hire subcontractors to help complete a project, while subcontractors commonly concentrate on executing and completing a specific aspect of the project on time and to the required standard.

  • Skills: While both professionals have similar skills, the latter are more likely to specialise in a certain area, while contractors may have skills in project management.

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Types of subcontractors

Many professionals specialising in certain skills can call themselves subcontractors, but some skills may be more in-demand than others. These professionals may work in industries such as construction or technology, but many have skills in other areas, such as:

  • Demolition: Contractors often hire subcontractors skilled in demolition to move existing structures on building sites or properties so they can start a new project. Demolition specialists are familiar with the risks involved in demolition and are skilled in operating equipment safely during the process.

  • Carpentry: They have woodworking skills and may work on both indoor and outdoor projects. Some of their work may include building, maintaining or repairing cabinets or furniture.

  • Electrical: They oversee setting up electrical systems for businesses or homes. Their skills include repairing and installing appliances and equipment and wiring fixtures to supply power to a building.

  • Excavation: Contractors often employ them in the initial stages of a building project, preparing the site for construction work. They may use heavy-duty equipment to level a building site and dig trenches for utilities or pipes.

  • Flooring: They may instal vinyl, wood or carpet. They prepare surfaces, measure the area and cut the desired materials before fitting.

  • Food service: Restaurants, event organisers or banquet halls often hire them when there's a short-term increase in demand.

  • Landscaping: They usually work for businesses that have gardens or botanical structures. Their duties may involve planting and maintaining trees, flowers and shrubs.

  • Masonry: They have good skills in stonework and often cut and instal materials such as marble, stone, granite and brick.

  • Painting: They may paint and finish a building's walls to ready them for furnishing.

  • Security: Companies often hire those skilled in security to protect buildings, individuals or businesses. These can include special occasions such as large-scale events or those that high-profile celebrities attend.

  • Technology: They specialise in helping companies set up networks, servers and computers. They also help in the installation of programs addressing software issues.

  • Air conditioning and heating: They specialise in air conditioning and heating and typically maintain, repair and instal heating and air conditioning or air vents to keep a building's heating and cooling systems working.

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5 steps to completing a subcontracting project

Contractors hire them to work on specific elements in a larger project. Here are some steps a contractor takes when hiring a subcontracting professional:

  1. A business or company hires a contractor to complete a project after agreeing on a set price.

  2. The contractor then hires subcontractors to complete specialised tasks on different aspects of the project.

  3. Both parties agree on a set fee and deadline for the completion of work and sign a contract that includes payment details and job terms.

  4. The contractor provides them with regular instructions on the work and asks them for updates throughout the project.

  5. Once they've completed the project, the contractor checks the work for quality and pays the agreed sum.

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Reasons companies hire subcontractors

Here are some common reasons that businesses may hire a subcontracting professional for their projects:

Expertise and help on large-scale projects

A contractor may hire them to get the required extra help for a large-scale project. Contractors often allocate the more time-consuming tasks to these professionals so they can focus on managing the more important elements of the project. This helps to decrease the time to complete the project, providing the contractor with a quick turnover and enabling them to move on to other projects.

Another advantage of hiring them is that they often have expertise in a particular project area. For example, a general contractor may have an overall knowledge of the industry but may not have expertise in every aspect. Hiring a contractor with a background in a specific aspect can help save time and effort while ensuring a high-quality final product.

Related: What Is Scope in Project Management and Why Is It Important?

Savings on employee costs

Businesses can often save money if they hire them for a fixed period instead of hiring and paying internal employees. If a company hires this professional, it can negotiate a contract with a set timeframe and an agreed fee. Doing this helps them reduce their overhead on a project that may only last for a set period.

Related: How to Calculate Cost per Hire in 3 Steps: Tips and Formula

Increased flexibility

Another reason companies hire them for their projects is that they may have more flexibility to negotiate contracts with them. If contractors want to replace their current subcontractors, they can often do so easily since their contracts are usually short. Also, they don't necessarily make additional payments after the contract ends.

Advantages of subcontracting

Subcontracting may be a good choice if you want freedom and flexibility. Here are some advantages of the role:

  • Flexibility: They're usually freelancers or independent professionals employed only for the duration of a specific project. They usually set their own schedule and decide their hours and availability.

  • Engagement in a specific skill set: They're usually experts in specific fields they enjoy working in. As subcontractors, they use their skills to produce high-quality products and results.

  • Consistent work: A successful and well-regarded subcontractor can build a network of clients and develop professional relationships with contractors. Contractors often continue to use those who have produced good quality work for them on past projects.

  • Less responsibility: They're usually only concerned with their own part of a project. This can allow them to focus on their area of expertise without other aspects of a project distracting them.

  • Reduced customer interaction: As they usually only concentrate on their area of expertise, they don't typically manage customer queries, handle contract negotiations, finalise payment terms and produce marketing ideas. The main contractors are usually in charge of customer service and relations, so they typically only communicate with the contractor.

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