Contract work is a lucrative option for IT professionals

Tom Welsh
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IT PROFESSIONALS in contract work may seem to have it easy. Daily rates are high, they regularly move between jobs and, when their skills are in demand, they can select projects that suit their interests and professional development. They have loyalty to their industry, but not always to any one firm.

But IT contracting rests on more than just technical skill and an eye for career advantage. Those in contract roles, and others considering whether to move into contracting from a permanent IT job, must consider the wider benefits and disadvantages and fulfil a broader range of requirements.

Mercenaries must be more than skilful to make money. Likewise, the capacity of contractors to command lucrative payments depends on reputation management, credibility, and convincing employers of their special place within the IT employment market.

Steve Yendell, executive director of Selby Jennings, says that most “move into contracting either because they see that their skills will be attractive in the market, because they’ll be able to work on a variety of projects, or for short-term income maximisation.” Contractors get choice over what they work on and where they work.

This comes at a price. Yendell stresses that “contractors expect a pay premium because they sacrifice the security and benefits of a permanent position.” James Holland, head of global markets at Alexander Black Recruitment, agrees. “The length of your contract is only the length of the notice period written in it. There’s no severance payment and you’ll inevitably have times when you're out of work for extended periods.”

To maximise the benefits you can gain out of contracting, therefore, it’s essential to offer what companies want. To a great extent, this rests on your technical ability. According to Holland, “you have to be up to date, you have be top of your game. The better you are technically, the more money you can earn.” But this isn’t the full picture.

Holland and Yendell predict that Scala and Python, two progamming languages, will be highly sought-after by investment banks and hedge funds in the near future. Those looking to launch themselves onto the contracting market should take advantage of these trends, and take the time to upskill. But a successful career in contracting requires broader qualities. Michael Crutchley, account manager at Computappoint, the specialist IT recruiter, says that good reputation is essential. It can be built on the back of ability, but contractors must also have proven “loyalty to their work and their projects”, and be “good at commanding authority.” Anyone considering moving into a contract role must be able to demonstrate that, despite the nomadic nature of their work, they’ll be fully committed to their employers’ requirements.

Networking is perhaps a surprising necessity for contractors. Some might picture IT professionals as the techies in the corner, but once a reputation is gained, it has to be managed. Close contact with other contractors and employers can also assist in staying informed of leading industry innovations.

Contractors must know and reassure their employers that they understand what contracting implies. Contract work doesn’t provide the luxury of building a role within an organisation, and contractors must be able to add value from day one. Employers want expertise to be implemented immediately.

If considering a move from permanent to contract work, you should be aware of the limitations as well as the advantages. Daily rates may compare well against an equivalent permanent role, but ensure you factor in the lack of a bonus, no job security, no pension contributions, no holiday or sick days. And determine that you want to work on contract in the long-term, and not for momentary monetary benefit.

Holland says that this final point is crucial. “If you’ve been a contractor, any recruiter and most employers will want to know why you want to go back into a permanent contract.” Just as it’s not necessarily easy to jump from permanency to contracting, the other direction has its own hurdles. Employers can be concerned that a contractor-turned-permanent will leave if the market for his or her skills picks up, and the burden is on the applicant to “prove a desire for stability.”

IT professionals in contracting should want to be IT contractors in the fullness of the role. This involves not just an appreciation of the benefits, but a heightened awareness of the disadvantages.

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