Contract Nation

You may be hearing a lot of grim speculation about the job market right now: that hiring will not pick up until late 2012; that you need to be employed to get a new job; that salaries are not going back to pre-recession levels; or that permanent jobs are permanently gone. While there is no absolute certainty that any of this is true, I was told by recruiters back in 2006 that contracting would be the new work style. This seems to be true. I’ve had more luck getting contract work than a full-time, in-house position as a writer.

Contracting is not necessarily a bad idea if your skill sets are in demand and you are willing to set up your own business and work space. The benefits for me have been that I do not need a car or money for car expenses; I can work from home; I can set my own hours; and I can choose which projects to take on. Marketing your skills can be the biggest downside of contracting; however, if you possess good writing skills, for example, your work does the marketing for you. Many contract recruiting agencies or online freelancing companies will also give you the option to buy health insurance. You just have to ensure that you work the minimum number of hours to keep eligibility for health insurance.

Getting paid on time can be another concern. However, if you work through a recruiter, the recruiting agency, rather than the employer, pays you. This may promote on-time, correct payments. As is true for any type of contract, do not sign an employment contract until you understand everything required of you. You may find that you have signed away your rights to arbitration or that you have signed a non-compete clause without realizing it. A non-compete clause may specify that you cannot work for the company’s competitor or within a certain industry for a specified period of time after leaving contract employment. A non-compete clause is illegal in CA and may be illegal in your state. Find out before you sign one.

Should you try contracting? How flexible are you willing to be? Contracting is not that difficult to set up. I started a contract writing business with a laptop. That’s it. You can test the waters by signing up for one contract while you look for something more permanent. It keeps you employed and helps you create a body of work that you can show to potential employers. You may just decide after that first contract that you like the freedom of contracting and want to continue with it.

The Secret to Contracting Success: Diversify

When I was a health industry recruiter, I wondered why so many contractors would turn down full-time gigs. Now that I’m freelancing, I understand why. If you work for one company, you run the risk of watching the project for which you are hired go down the drain or the company go belly up. Many of the biostatisticians I hired had their own businesses set up in this way: they paid for their own health and life insurance and did not rely on a recruiting agency to provide insurance; they had their own computer equipment and did not borrow from the company unless they had to; they had more than one client at the same time; they built in vacation days into their yearly schedule; and they also refused to continue with the client when they were not paid per the regular payment schedule.

Unfortunately, diversifying your clients if you are a contractor/freelancer can be difficult. In the writing arena, many content publishers will only hire you at pittance wages (some as low as $2 per article) and only move you up the pay scale once you have proven that your written content is worthy. Yet, many prefer you do not write for their competitors. This was also true for the biostatisticians. Performing data analysis for clinical trials conducted by two different pharmaceutical companies for drugs treating the same medical condition was frowned upon enough to get a “moonlighting” biostatistician fired. It may also get that person blacklisted in his/her chosen field.

Having a financial cushion in place before you begin contracting helps. You can pay for medical and life insurance and keep paying your bills while you build up your contracting business.

Willingness to diversify and stretch yourself to work in a field slightly outside your comfort zone will be a plus as well. It also builds up your skill set and opens up new contracting opportunities.

Willingness to jump ship is another plus. Many of us are so used to working, full-time so-called permanent jobs. It’s comfy; you don’t have to worry about your next job or paycheck. Contractors also get comfy too with the companies for which they work. They tend to take on contracts with the same companies over and over. However, if you contract, you need to be aware of the signs that show when a project or company is about to go under. Yes, you may have signed a contract. In that case, get yourself prepared for the end. My biostatisticians were in a unique position in that regard. They often knew by looking at the clinical data when a drug was not working and would not move into the next clinical testing phase. These people were smart; they networked with myself and other people in the industry to find out what else was out there before the end came. They stayed prepared…