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Contractor vs Subcontractor: What’s the Difference

Contractors and subcontractors are an integral part of most construction projects. Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but the reality is that they are two very different positions with their own implications. Understanding the difference is important before commencing on a large construction project.

The main difference between a contractor and subcontractor is that a contractor is hired directly by project managers and works under them, whereas a subcontractor is hired by other contractors to perform specific jobs on the project. The scope of work of a subcontractor is therefore more limited.

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What is a contractor?

A contractor is hired by a project’s management to carry out specific tasks on the project. Contractors usually have a broad scope of work that places many different responsibilities on them. That’s why most contractors tend to work with their own teams that they manage and assign tasks to.

Occasionally, a contractor’s team may not be able to fulfil all requirements of a project, which is where a subcontractor comes in.

What is a subcontractor?

A subcontractor is hired directly by contractors to carry out very specialized tasks. For example, a building contractor might hire an extra painter to bridge a gap in their own workforce and allow the project to move forward as scheduled.

Contractors don’t always hire subcontractors for every project. But whenever a subcontractor is hired on a construction project, they always work under one of the contractors involved. Subcontractors tend to specialize very tightly in the work they do, though some might provide a range of different services in order to get hired on a wider variety of projects.

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Contractor Subcontractor
Works directly under project management Works directly under a contractor
Oversees the work of their team and subcontractors Responsible for their own specific tasks
May not necessarily be directly involved in the construction work Works directly on the construction site

The difference between a contractor and subcontractor may seem subtle, but it’s a very important distinction when it comes to hiring the right experts for a project. Working with good contractors often means having direct access to various qualified subcontractors as well, which can sometimes make all the difference in how a project is handled.