What is subcontracting?

Subcontracting occurs when a primary contractor hires a third party, referred to as the subcontractor, to carry out specific duties or provide services related to a larger project. Construction, manufacturing, information technology, and other industries frequently use this setup.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary has the following definition of subcontracting:

“The practice of paying a person or company to do some of the work that you have been given a contract to do.”

Key features

The following are the key features of subcontracting:

  • Division of responsibilities

The main contractor delegates specific responsibilities to the subcontractor, who then becomes responsible for that part of the project.

  • Contractual agreements

These legal contracts outline the scope of work, deadlines, payment terms, and quality standards.

  • Specialization

In most cases, subcontractors specialize in certain skills or services that bring expertise that the main contractor may not be proficient in.

It allows for flexibility in managing resources and scaling operations according to project demands.


There are several benefits to subcontracting, including:

  • Access to expertise

Subcontractors bring specialized knowledge and skills, which may help optimize the overall quality of the project.

  • Cost-effectiveness

For specific or short-term tasks, it may be more cost-effective, i.e., cheaper, than recruiting full-time employees.

  • Time-saving

Delegating tasks to subcontractors saves the primary contractor time, thus allowing them to better focus on the project.

  • Resource Management

Subcontracting enables more strategic use of existing resources, optimizing task distribution and reducing strain on internal assets, leading to improved project efficiency.

Image about subcontracting - drawings of a client, primary contractor, and a subcontractor
Image created by Market Business News.


There are several challenges to subcontracting, such as:

  • Quality control

Ensuring high quality in a subcontractor’s work can be a significant challenge.

  • Communication barriers

Effective communication is crucial but which can be challenging to maintain., leading to misunderstandings or misalignments in project goals.

  • Dependence on subcontractors

Reliance on subcontractors can lead to delays or issues, potentially impacting the overall project and its success.

  • Legal and contractual issues

Navigating legal and contractual complexities with subcontractors can be intricate, involving compliance, liability, and agreement terms.

Real-world examples

Here are some real-world examples of subcontracting:

  • Construction

A general contractor might subcontract electrical or plumbing work to specialist firms.

  • Technology

A software development company might subcontract part of its coding to a specialized software firm.

  • Video Content

In the realm of video content, a YouTuber might outsource editing tasks to a professional video editor.

  • Event Planning

A corporate event planning company may subcontract catering services to a specialized catering firm.

  • Manufacturing

A car manufacturer might subcontract the production of specific auto parts, like batteries or electronic systems, to companies specializing in those areas.

  • Healthcare

A hospital or healthcare provider may subcontract medical billing and coding services to a firm that specializes in healthcare administration.

Subcontracting vs. Outsourcing

  • Subcontracting

When you have a specific job that needs completing, you hire a subcontractor, i.e., you are involved in subcontracting.

For example, you may subcontract the electrical installations for a renovation project, the painting work for a residential development, and the HVAC system installation for a new office complex (HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning).

  • Outsourcing

When you want another firm to take over a department of your company or part of that department, on a long-term basis, you outsource that work. You may outsource customer service, IT management, payroll processing, human resources, and logistics to specialized firms.

Put imply, outsourcing is for long-term work, while subcontracting is for short-term projects.

Written by Nicolas Perez Diaz