If my nephew had a hammer...
January 30, 2008 1:15 PM   Subscribe

18 year old guy from California really wants to become a contractor. Gimme the best advice for him please.

He's my nephew. He's currently going to a bible college* in the Carolinas, and although Jesus was a carpenter I keep thinking there are probably better training grounds to gain the educational background and skills that will help him to actively reach his dreams of a construction career. So I'm asking this question for my sister. My father was a contractor too, but it was the family business at the time (no longer) so I'm not sure how someone would pursue it from scratch. Insights needed! Thank you.

*No LOL xtians comments sil vous plait. That's not the advice he needs.
posted by miss lynnster to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He may or not need a college degree, depending on what he end up doing, but it makes sense that maybe he should get a job in the field, as a carpenter's assistant, and see if he really likes it, before he commits. if he does, there are programs at many community and technical colleges, or he could learn on the job.
posted by miss tea at 1:26 PM on January 30, 2008

He should get his little saved butt down to Habitat, stat.

What kind of contractor does he want to be? Doe he need tips on learning wiring, plumbing, low voltage, or on just starting a general contractor company?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I believe general contractor. Probably residential.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:32 PM on January 30, 2008

wait a couple of years
posted by Salvatorparadise at 1:36 PM on January 30, 2008

My local tech-school/community-college offers a degree in something called 'Construction Management.' From speaking to people in that program, I get the impression that, while nearly everyone in the construction biz starts out in entry-level positions and works their way up, this kind of degree can provide a major leg up.
posted by box at 1:37 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Damn. Ambrosia Voyeur beat me to it. Habitat for Humanity provides incredible opportunities to be a layman in a contractor's world. Some Habitat chapters conduct formal training programs such as "crew chief" and "master carpenter" training. He may be able to get (modestly) paid for this as an Americorps worker; I know our local HFH chapter has two or three Americorps workers that support us.
posted by Doohickie at 1:39 PM on January 30, 2008

Seconding the community college suggestion. Once he is a resident of California, he can attend community college for a ridiculously cheap rate (it was $11 a unit when I was there, not sure what it is now). The people teaching those classes are often in the field and have job prospects for good students.
posted by 45moore45 at 1:45 PM on January 30, 2008

Does the bible college offer any courses in business or accounting? That would probably be a fabulous way to spend his time while he's there.
posted by amtho at 1:51 PM on January 30, 2008

Having his own set of tools (including an air compressor and air tools) would be a big plus in him getting hired on as an assistant to other contractors while he builds up his skill set and networking abilities.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:01 PM on January 30, 2008

Seconding Accounting and business classes. Also, if he is going into residential, he really needs to wait a few years. If he was talking about commercial, he might have a shot now.
posted by OldReliable at 2:04 PM on January 30, 2008

Dittoing community college in California. I've taken classes in construction there: made good contacts and learned a lot. And go work at Habitat until he gets entry-level on-site work.
posted by anadem at 2:06 PM on January 30, 2008

box's answer is good pretty much the whole way through -- I think that particular bit of education would be good to have and would probably help him move up in the ranks, but he'll still have to move up through the ranks.

Most of the General Contractors (GCs) I knew in residential construction started out on framing crews, so that would probably be the place to start. That trade, and maybe concrete, has probably the most interconnectedness with the other trades that will eventually be on the job, since they need to allow for plumbing, electrical, and mechanical equipment, as well as provide accurate framing for later installation of windows and roofing. That ends up carrying over into the GC role, where the job mostly becomes a matter of scheduling and sequencing. A GC's main concern will be getting everything done on time and on budget, which means scheduling his subcontractors to be on the jobsite in a particular way so that they're not impeding each other's progress, and that stuff that needs to be done before certain guys come on the job is actually done at that point. Like, the underslab plumbing needs to be completely installed before they pour the slab, or else they have to go in and jackhammer stuff out and retrench and etc. etc. etc., at additional cost and schedule delay. So, if your plumbing guys aren't done with laying pipe by the time the concrete's scheduled to start pouring, that screws things up. That kind of stuff takes a while to get a feel for, and it's by far the most important part of a GC's job (I'm speaking from the architect side of things here, though), since that'll really be where he makes his money. I imagine that scheduling and budgeting are a HUGE part of the construction management education program. Knowing how stuff is actually built and building codes and all that is pretty simple in comparison.

That said, residential construction is a tricky beast, and you practically have to be Jesus to successfully put up with the frustrations of it, so he might be started off on the right path already.
posted by LionIndex at 2:07 PM on January 30, 2008

Apprenticing either formally in the trades or more casually for a small GC is one way, depending on his contacts. Where I live and work it can be quite hard to find these situations as many 18 year olds would like them. Getting hired as an assistant estimator or similar at a local firm is another, and community college courses or night classes in estimating, blueprint reading or any of the many other "construction management" type classes might help him make contacts with the teachers and with older students doing a bunch of courses to get a certificate of one sort or another. Either way, before he makes any decision perhaps a first step may be a few chats with reps at local construction trades organizations like this one might be a start.
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:08 PM on January 30, 2008

Having his own set of tools (including an air compressor and air tools) would be a big plus in him getting hired on as an assistant to other contractors while he builds up his skill set and networking abilities.

If he's just carrying lumber around, he won't need much stuff, but if he expects to actually be sawing wood and driving nails, he'll most definitely need his own set of tools. That stuff ain't cheap, and gets stolen from jobsites *all the time*.
posted by LionIndex at 2:13 PM on January 30, 2008

I worked as a framer for a couple summers. It's great way to get hands on experience, and 18 is finally over the age limit for mildly hazardous jobs (nail guns, heights, etc). Also, the pay is good for a kid with little experience and willing to learn. I called around to homebuilders who referred me to their framers and they were glad to have an extra pair of hands. Only tools I needed were a framer's hammer, speed square, chalk line, tool belt, and a tape measure (Craftsman used to have (still does?) a lifetime warranty that was used over and over).

If he wants to go into business for himself, he might want to look at a business degree. That's what my boss had and it done him good. If he wants to work on larger project, a Construction Management degree wouldn't hurt.
posted by yeti at 2:20 PM on January 30, 2008

Hey. I work in sales and marketing for a company that works with and places contractors with residential jobs, so I deal with startup contractors in California all the time, and deal with licensing requirements in various states. He should go here if he's looking around at licensing requirements; it's a hell of a resource on that in every state nationwide. I'll note here that I am neither a lawyer nor an accountant nor a licensing board member, so this should be taken as the advice of none of those people.

The first thing I can tell you is that, if it's a choice for him, he should stay in the Carolinas. Most general contracting tasks in North Carolina either don't require licensing or are relatively lenient on licensing requirements. South Carolina is a bit tougher, requiring a year of experience and what I've heard is a pretty tough test for registration of homebuilders and general contractors. However, California is a bitch as far as this stuff is concerned, and are generally the most strict about licensing requirements. You must have four years of experience in the last ten working in a supervisory position as a registered journeyman to apply, and must take a test. Since he's not an engineer, he'll be taking the B or the C exam; I believe there are different forms of this exam based on his specialty classification. There are contractors that claim that this test is 'harder than the bar exam,' but that might just be because contractors hate taking tests. I know people who have taken it who say it's not to tough. But suffice it to say: it will take a long time to get this license. It won't be that tough, but he'll have to start working as an employee first, and he'll have to pursue it. I guess you sometimes can get there faster (say, two years) if you apprentice or if you have state-approved education.

He also has to carry General Liability Insurance. This is strenuously required by the state of California. I believe they check to see if you have it when you get your license. Even in states where it's not required, it's absolutely necessary, as horrible things happen all the time through no fault of the contractor on construction sites, and he won't want to go bankrupt.

California also, like many states, registers licenses under the company name that he'll be doing business under. They do this for several reasons-- I think that it's good to make sure that these things are square, so it's probably a good idea-- one of which is that contractors in California are allowed to have different licenses under different companies that they own or work for. He has the option, if he's working on his own, of (a) operating as a sole proprietorship, which generally means that he's an individual, taxed as an individual, and is individually liable; (b) as a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC, taxed in sort of a hybrid way (but more complex than individual), and has limited individual liability; or (c) as an incorporation, fully public record-wise to the state, and filing many forms as to financial actions. Most start out as sole proprietors, and it's very easy, because he doesn't have to file any additional paperwork to do so. Sole proprietors who operate under a name different from their own name (like if I wanted to be called "Super Duper Roofers" or something) have to register with the Secretary of State in nine states [Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont] but California isn't one of them. An LLC is generally better because it limits the liability of the owner.

One thing I'd want to impress on him, however, is the extreme importance of having all of his paperwork straight. In California, this is especially so; if you operate without a license there, your company is not seen as a legal entity, and operating under a different name than your registered name counts as operating without a license. I know of a guy in California who built houses, and who forgot to put the " , Inc." after his company name on a contract. The client refused to pay, saying they didn't like the way the paint looked; he tried to take them to court, but couldn't even file, because his company wasn't recognized as the company at issue, since that company name without an " , Inc." didn't have a registered license; and the insurance company where he had his General Liability, of course, pointed out that they wouldn't cover him because he wasn't correct as to how his DBA (doing-business-as) was listed on his certificate. He had to swallow the cost of building the rather large house, $300,000, and had absolutely no legal recourse. The moral is that paperwork is important.

But it's not as scary as it sounds. That web page I gave up above will get him started, and a few phone calls to the right agencies will give him all the info he needs on how he'd go about doing it. I know lots of guys who have worked their way up as journeyman, and there's still plenty of money to be made in California in construction. And, hell, he can always go to Missouri; they don't require licenses at all.

Hope this helps.

Finally, I work for a company, as I say above, that does online networking connecting contractors with homeowners who need work done. We're big, we do good work, and I believe that our company can be very useful, especially for contractors that are just getting started, but I won't link them here because I'm not posting here as a salesman. However, if he'd like to know anything about us, anyone can get in touch with me via MefiMail.
posted by koeselitz at 3:08 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Quick amendment: sorry, you don't have to have four years of experience as a journeyman to apply for a license. You have to have four out of the last ten years of experience, as that page I linked says, "as a journeyman, foreman, supervising employee, contractor, or owner-builder." I have a feeling that Habitat might indeed be a great place to start, and community college would potentially cut down on the amount of experience he'd need.
posted by koeselitz at 3:17 PM on January 30, 2008

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