What’s the Difference Between a Project Manager, Construction Manager, and a General Contractor?
The general contractor (GC) is the linchpin of on-site activities, making sure that everything runs smoothly, on-time and on-budget. They’re the ones actually getting their hands “dirty”, so to speak, working on the site itself and making sure that everything is going according to plan.
With guidance from the CM and the PM, GCs are actively engaged in the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts of construction, working with subs and vendors to put things together, piece by piece.
- What they do: The GC is the overseer of daily construction tasks. They’re the ones who bring in the superintendents, subcontractors and sometimes even foremen to ensure the project runs smoothly. Whatever they need to get the job done, the GC does it.
- Subcontractors: A significant chunk of the skilled trades, around 80-90%, is usually outsourced by GCs to specialty subcontractors. These relationships are often long-standing, ensuring a seamless workflow.
- Specializations: While some GCs might have a niche in areas like framing or site work, others might cater to specific sectors like residential complexes.
- Communication Dynamics: The project manager works with the GC, ensuring smooth communication between the owner or architect and the on-site activities.
Construction Manager: The Overseer
The construction manager (CM) is the strategist, working closely with the head of the project (presidents, CEOs, PMs – the structure varies) and architect right from the project’s inception. These are the long-term planners and strategists who make sure a construction project is not only viable but executed correctly.
They handle much, much more than a GC does – they’re running the whole ship, from finances to engineering. Unlike a GC, a CM rarely gets hands-on with the day-to-day operations of the job site. They don’t use tools or instruct subs on jobs. Instead, they make plans and deploy people to oversee the execution of those plans.
- What they do: The CM is the overseer of the entire project lifecycle. Their involvement starts way before the actual construction, during the budgeting and timeline setting phase, and continues till the project’s completion.
- Team Dynamics: A construction manager always boasts a diverse team of broad skill sets – this is the real value of a CM. They leverage professionals like estimators, accountants, and project managers to successfully plan and execute a construction project.
- Long-Term Planners: The CM’s involvement begins right from the design phase and continues until the job is done. Their early engagement ensures that project goals are not just ambitious but also achievable – these are the people who can ensure a project is not just a dream but a reality.
Project Managers: The Pivot Point
The project manager (PM) is the most flexible of all of these roles – often finding themselves in positions both above and below CMs and GCs. These highly-flexible professionals have a broad skillset that is largely focused on managing people and achieving short- and long-term goals determined by the project’s overall objectives.
- What they do: The PM is involved in every facet of a real estate project, and there are often several PMs involved in any project – operating at different levels for the various parties involved. They ensure that all consultants align with the client’s objectives and manage resources to meet the project’s quality, budget, and timeline.
- Step-By-Step: The PM makes sure the project meets its goals – both on a long-term and short-term scale. While they don’t have the skills or hands-on interaction like a GC might, they influence the project by making sure everyone meets agreed-upon goals.
- Timeline Managers: One of the chief duties of a project manager is to make sure that the project stays on time. This is achieved by setting meaningful goals and hitting them, while also dealing with the unavoidable problems that arise in any project efficiently and quickly.
- Flexible Roles: The skillset of a PM can vary widely, and it all depends on who they’re working for. A PM may be a senior position in a construction company – managing a Construction Manager and/or the General Contractor on the client’s behalf –or they may be a low-level operator, a pseudo-subcontractor of a GC or a CM.
- Engagement Timeline: Unlike GCs or CMs, PMs oversee the entire project, from its inception to its close-out. What “the project” is depends on the role and scope of that PM’s position within the project.
Key Differences and Similarities Between GCs, PMs and CMs
Understanding the nuanced roles of the project manager, construction manager, and general contractor can be confusing, especially as the project manager role can be a small or giant piece of the puzzle, depending on both the project and each individual company’s organizational structure!
Here’s some of the general similarities and differences between these roles.
- Management Roles: All three roles, be it PMs, CMs, or GCs, play a supervisory role in the construction process. They ensure that the project adheres to the set standards, timelines, and quality benchmarks throughout the process.
- Stakeholder Communication: Each of these professionals acts as a bridge between different stakeholders in the process. In fact, you could argue their main role is to communicate information between teams.
- Risk Management: Whether it’s a PM identifying potential project risks during the planning phase, a CM ensuring safety protocols during construction, or a GC managing on-site risks, all three roles prioritize risk management. It’s both a legal necessity and a career necessity – none of these roles can risk a serious problem.
- Budget Oversight: Financial management is a shared responsibility across all of these roles – some more than others. A high-level PM usually sets the initial budget, CMs ensure the project stays within that budget during construction, GCs manage the day-to-day expenses related to subcontractors and materials, and low-level PMs make sure they follow the GC’s instructions.
- Work Timeline:
- Project Manager: Their involvement starts from the project’s inception, covering pre-construction activities, construction administration, and post-construction evaluations.
- Construction Manager: CMs step into the picture during the pre-construction phase. They’re involved in setting the budget, timeline, and even work closely with the design architect to make sure the vision stays consistent.
- General Contractor: GCs usually come on board after the design phase is complete. Their primary focus is the actual construction, managing day-to-day on-site activities.
- Scope of Work:
- Project Manager: A PM’s role is all-encompassing. For instance, they might be involved in acquiring necessary permits, ensuring compliance with local regulations, or even going to dinners to network with stakeholders.
- Construction Manager: CMs, on the other hand, are more about the planning and execution of the physical job within the confines of the budget. They might work on value engineering, suggesting cost-saving measures without compromising on quality. They also play a pivotal role in resource allocation, ensuring the right personnel and equipment are in place.
- General Contractor: GCs are responsible for the actual brick-and-mortar tasks on a day-to-day basis. For example, while a PM might decide on the type of flooring for a building, the GC is the one who ensures it’s laid down correctly.
- Relationship Dynamics:
- Project Manager: At high levels, acts as an extension of the client’s team, ensuring all consultants align with the client’s objectives. At lower levels, a team leader makes sure smaller units work efficiently and effectively.
- Construction Manager: Works as a collaborative partner with the owner, ensuring the owner’s interests are prioritized throughout the project.
- General Contractor: Their relationship is more formal and transactional than other roles. They’re chosen, often through a bidding process, to execute the construction as per the design and within the set budget.
- Subcontractor Management:
- Project Manager: While they oversee the entire project, PMs typically don’t directly manage subcontractors. Instead, they manage the CM or GC, who in turn manage the subcontractors. On the lower levels, the PMs might manage subs and office employees.
- Construction Manager: CMs might recommend subcontractors during the planning phase, especially if they foresee specific challenges that require specialized skills, but they certainly don’t manage subcontractors themselves.
- General Contractor: GCs are the only ones that directly hire and manage subcontractors. They ensure that specialized tasks, be it plumbing or electrical work, are executed flawlessly.
At the end of the day, there’s a fair bit of overlap between these three roles, especially PMs and CMs, but what this looks like in practice will vary wildly depending on the size and scope of your construction jobs.
If you’re a Roofer, you’re probably not too bothered by the differences between these roles, but once you get beyond the basic jobs and you start seeing those multi-million dollar projects with off-shore funding, keeping things organized via CMs, PMs and GCs becomes important.
More than anything, these roles are leadership and communication roles. Your job in each of these positions is to maintain standards by acting as a prism for your team. You receive information and it’s your job to communicate between your team and your bosses to make sure that the job is completed the way it needs to be.
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Procore – Construction Manager vs General Contractor: Roles & Differences
Flooring Masters – General Contractors Versus Project Managers
AIA – What are the Key Differences Between a Construction Manager and General Contractor?
CRB Group – CM vs. GC