Construction and Human Resources

'Trade' contractor vs. 'sub'-contractor

April 30, 2015
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'Trade' contractor vs. 'sub'-contractor
An Elzinga & Volkers employee, right, talks with a trade contractor at a job site. Courtesy Elzinga & Volkers

Are we really respecting our peers in how we’ve always referred to them?

Look around your job sites. You will probably see groups of men and women using a highly refined skill or a tremendous amount of physical energy to complete your building projects. I have a huge amount of respect for highly skilled tradespeople who take great care and attention in their work, and I believe that most of us feel the same way.

As a general contractor, the majority of the work we put in place is not done by our own workforce. We rely heavily on the talents of other firms to work side-by-side with us to finish the task.

The industry has labeled these companies who assist a general contractor as “subcontractors.” This doesn’t sit well with me. It has always sounded like these companies are “less than,” when in fact they are equally important to the project’s success.

So why do we use language to describe these partners that puts them lower than us or belittles their role in delivering a highly successful project?

I blame the language in construction contracts for creating this reference. Simply, the contract for the whole project is between the owner and the general contractor. Since the general contractor doesn’t have the talent and resources to do the whole project on its own typically, they have to “sub-contract” out to others who can. Thus the label “subcontractor.”

I believe this term is fine if you’re dealing with the courts and defining a legal relationship, but it doesn’t need to go outside of that. It is time to change that thinking and continue to increase the respect we have for all our project team members.

Use of the term "trade contractor"

A few weeks ago, we sent out an inter-office email announcing that effective immediately, our firm will remove the term “subcontractor” from our corporate vocabulary. Instead, we will use the term “trade contractor” to describe a business or person that carries out work alongside us as part of a larger project.

Why are we making this change?

I have listed a few dictionary definitions below to show the difference between the two terms. As you can see, the term “trade contractor” is much more respectful and fits better with how we should view our valuable team members. The people and companies that make up our project teams are our partners, not our subordinates, and we need to treat them as such.

Sub: At, to, or from a lower level or position; lower in rank; of a smaller size or of a subordinate nature; of lesser quality; inferior

Trade: A skilled job, typically one requiring manual skills and special training

How can you implement this change?

We understand that the term “subcontractor” has been deeply ingrained in the construction industry’s vocabulary, so changing our habits may be a tough transition. To implement this change over the whole industry, we need to hold each other accountable. If you hear someone use the term “subcontractor” or see it in a document, remind them of your transition to use the term “trade contractor.” Have some fun with it. Start a “swear” jar on your job site or in your office where team members contribute money every time the old term is used. Explain to your partners why you are making this change. They should be treated as equals on your project teams!

Remember that your business, no matter the industry, relies on great partners. We cannot be successful without them. We are all interested in delivering the best product to our clients, and I feel strongly that this subtle change will help make your teams more cohesive in achieving that goal.

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