What It Means to Be Part of the US Painting Industry

As a professional painting contractor, you will be part of the well-established U.S. painting industry. The good news, according to a painter’s market research report released by IBIS World, is that demand for your services should increase as the rate of construction increases. After all, every new home needs a fresh coat of paint lest it get mistaken for an assembled pile of rubble!

According to the report, there are more than 400,000 people employed in the U.S. painting industry, but incredibly there are also 250,000 businesses. This is a clear indication that the majority of companies are one- and two-man bands with few large organizations. Indeed, the report states that the top three businesses in the industry account for less than 5 percent of the market. Annual revenue stands at $31 billion, and the average annual growth over the last five years is 3.5 percent.

In this article, we take a look at what it means to be involved in the U.S. painting industry. We analyze the growth of the industry and discuss the problems faced by contractors. First up, however, we look at commercial and residential painting as a career choice.

Commercial/Residential Painting as a Career


The fact is that there are tens of thousands of painting contractors without qualifications; homeowners looking for a “cheap and cheerful” job may not even bother to check a contractor’s credentials. Yet this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to follow a certain path towards legitimacy.

While you won’t need specific qualifications if you set up your own business, you will probably require at least a high school diploma and some work experience to get a job with a reputable company. Some contractors will allow you to work as an apprentice for a couple of years fresh out of school, but you will receive a fairly low wage.


In most U.S. states, working as a painting contractor without a license is against the law. When it comes to the construction bidding process, interested contractors must prove they hold a state license by providing a license number with the bid. Every state has its own licensing process and regulations, so find out the rules and regulations in your state. For example, painting contractors in New Mexico need to have two years of experience before becoming a contractor, must pass a licensing exam, and provide proof of financial responsibility.

You also need to become part of the Environmental Protection Agency Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting (also known as RRP) program. Contractors are responsible for preventing lead exposure, and being in the RRP program is a necessity to prove you follow safe working practices when dealing with lead-based paints. As a general rule, you can expect to complete a certain amount of hours in business and law classes, pass an exam, and have a specific amount of work experience before you receive your license.

Other credentials you need if you intend on being seen as a reputable painting contractor include a surety bond and liability insurance. The purpose of a surety bond is to protect consumers in case damages occur due to defective work practices or other license law violations, and it also protects employees in case they are not paid their wages. At standard market rates, you will pay 1 to 3 percent of the cost of the total bond, so a $10,000 bond may cost $300.

You need liability insurance to protect yourself in case any legal action is taken against you. It is also important to have insurance in case you sustain a serious injury at work and are laid up for a considerable period of time. Contractors without liability insurance are placing their livelihood at risk.

Should You Join a Union?

For painting contractors in the United States and Canada, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (also known as IUPAT) is your best option if you wish to join a union. It represents North Americans in trades such as floor covering, glazing, drywall finishing, and commercial and industrial painting. There are 140,000 members of IUPAT at the time of writing, and we look at the pros and cons of being a member.


First and foremost, you can expect to be well-paid if you are a union member. For instance, you could earn up to $40 an hour if you have completed a three-year apprentice program. Naturally, wages vary depending on where you live, but you also enjoy an excellent pension plan along with health and dental insurance.

As a member of IUPAT, you are protected against poor working conditions and should be given breaks in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the afternoon. IUPAT also provides free training at its own school, though taking these classes is mandatory. During these lessons, you can expect to learn all aspects of the painting trade, including wood finishing, wallpaper, taping, spraying, and much more.


You need to work a certain number of hours to receive the aforementioned benefits. Many painting contractors find it hard to get work during the winter months, and this prevents them from receiving the full benefit of being a union member. It is also common for union contractors to lay off apprentices when they have completed the three-year program because they don’t want to pay the extra wages.

Although there are supposed to be certain ratios between the number of journeymen and apprentices hired, some contracting companies use more apprentices to cut costs, and this takes work away from fully qualified professionals. Regardless of whether you’re working or not, you must pay your quarterly fee. Finally, if you are caught bidding on union work privately, you are likely to be fined and lose a percentage of your pension.

Industry Challenges

The global economic recession hit painting contractors hard as the construction markets plummeted. With fewer residential and commercial jobs to keep them going, a number of painting contractors went to the wall. However, there is hope on the horizon, as the construction industry is once again on the rise; a report suggests the construction component of the gross domestic product rose by 8 percent during the first quarter of 2013, and while growth slowed later that year, there are signs of construction getting back on its feet. This is, of course, great news for the U.S. painting industry.

Small Companies

According to a survey conducted by the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, 85 percent of all painting jobs worth less than $100,000 performed by contractors were on residential properties, whereas 12.5 percent of jobs were done on commercial properties. Approximately two-thirds of firms interviewed in the aforementioned study (which is admittedly a tad dated) said they hired no more than seven employees, with many firms hiring only one or two. Incredibly, only 12 percent of companies had more than 20 employees, so it is clear few organizations have room for growth.

The DIY Movement

Though the do-it-yourself movement suffered a lull due to the recession, it was a market worth some $268 billion in the United States alone during 2009. Clearly, this also includes carpentry and other jobs, but it’s clear the DIY movement is placing a major dent in the U.S. painting industry. By way of comparison, U.S. painting and coating producers totaled just over $25 billion in shipments during 2012.

It’s no small wonder why there is such a desire to perform DIY tasks. Painting is considered to be one of the “easiest” of trades, which is of course an absurd statement. Nonetheless, it doesn’t prevent unqualified individuals from “having a go” at projects beyond their capabilities. In many cases, the results can be disastrous, yet people are content to take this risk rather than hiring a professional painting contractor.


There is a perception that hiring a professional is simply too expensive, but in many cases, you get what you pay for. The Internet is filled with literally thousands of articles encouraging people to do a DIY painting job to save 30 percent or whatever arbitrary figure they pluck out of the air. In most cases, these are poorly researched articles, but since they promise to save money, readers lap up the content. The reality is that badly performed DIY jobs can cost you a lot more in the long run, because you not only waste your time and pay for the materials, you end up hiring a professional anyway to clean up the mess!

As a result, painting contracts are awarded almost entirely on cost. Company A may be far more qualified than its rival, Company B, but if the latter can undercut the former by 10 percent or more, the customer will probably choose the less reputable but cheaper option. Publicly funded projects are by far the most likely to be determined by price.

Poor Reputation

It is heartbreaking for hardworking and highly skilled painting contractors to be tarred with the same brush as “cowboys,” but unfortunately the public perception of the paint contracting industry is generally a negative one. Common complaints leveled against contractors include not calling back, failure to finish the job on time, an unwillingness to fix problems, and even stealing deposits!

The thing is that unlicensed, unskilled painters are the ones committing all of the above “crimes,” and it is the customer’s responsibility to ensure the contractor being hired is licensed, bonded, and insured. If you want a cheap job done, don’t expect five-star work. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a lack of consistent state-to-state regulation, which separates legitimate contractors from those who should not be allowed work as a professional commercial or residential painter.

Bidding for Projects

There is a ridiculous perception that the owner of a commercial facility simply accepts a painting contractor’s bid and allows them to get on with the job. From a contractor’s point of view, it is essential to understand the scope of a project before a bid is even submitted. It is up to the customer to help the painting team understand how they expect the project to unfold.

Important things to consider include the level of project management that takes place on behalf of the customer, the number of painters that will be on site, the project deadline, and of course the cost. The customer must not assume that just because a contractor estimates the cost to be $50,000, this is what will happen. There is a lot that could happen during a project that would change the price dramatically. Consumers must thoroughly investigate a contractor’s bid before accepting.

Choosing Paint

Since the paint job is supposed to last for a considerable period of time, contractors must be clear on the quality and type of paint to be used. Reputable companies spare no expense, but customers must understand that high-quality materials mean a bump in the budget. Consumers usually have a preconceived notion of which coatings and manufacturers are the best.

For the record, reputable painting contractors will typically opt for tried and trusted products from companies such as Sherwin-Williams, PPG Industries, DuPont, and RPM Inc. According to statistics from 2013, these four companies are America’s bestselling paint and coatings manufacturers around the world. PPG Industries is actually the world’s Number 2 company in the painting industry, with sales of $13.6 billion in 2013.


In answer to our original question, which asked about what it means to be part of the U.S. painting industry, it has to be said that painting contractors face a lot of challenges. The American public’s love of DIY means contractors can often be left out in the cold, and of course there is the small matter of unlicensed and unqualified individuals giving the industry a bad name.

However, if you can get regular work and become part of a union, being a member of the painting industry can be extremely lucrative, as the pay and benefits are excellent. More importantly, if you love painting, enjoy hard work, and have the requisite skill, you could have a wonderful career.


  • ibisworld
  • ehow
  • epa
  • suretybonds
  • iupat
  • Marc Freedman, Independent Bankers Association of America, September 1997
  • harwarejournal
  • imageworkspainting
  • paintingprotimes