Dear Plume de Poison,
I’m one of those people who has been sticking it out through Covid at a job I hated 18 months ago. My resume is current, and the job boards are filled with positions that pay more and could level-up my career, but the majority of them are contract, and only for six or 12 months.
I’ve never worked as a contractor before. Should I apply for (and take) a contract job? There’s a lot of them out there, but I feel like it might be step down from being an employee. And, I dread the idea that I’d have to look for another job in six months or a year. What should I do?
There is no right or wrong choice here, the question is this: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
You’re right, gig work is a higher risk, but it’s also higher paying, and there’s lot of gigs out there. It’s certainly not a step-down from being an employee. Many highly paid, “gold-collar” experts work only as contractors. If you’re stuck in a dead-end job or dying industry, definitely consider contracting. Contracting offers a way to hop out, acquire some new skills and experience, and level-up your career.
For those new to contracting, know a great gig can be found in a company you might not find suitable as a a long-term employer. For example, you could spent 6-18 months building a software application for an insurance company. That doesn’t mean you want a career in the insurance industry. Similarly, you might desire the stability and culture of public employer, but that comes with the risk that your position could have little private sector marketability, and if (really, when) you lose that job, you could be unemployable.
Being employed is great, but Covid has taught us that being employ-able is much more important.
The contingent workforce has exploded over the past decade. Why? Because CapEx money is much easier to get and manage than fulltime headcount. If you’re going to contract, know your client is hiring a contractor because they do not have permission to add headcount. In many cases, they never will.
Moreover, one of the biggest misconceptions about contracts and contractors is that the contractor’s goal is to work for the client as a full-time employee. This is akin to assuming that every blind date wants to marry you. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While there are some contracts designed to convert contractors into employees, those contracts are the exception, not the rule. It’s much more likely you would renegotiate or extend your contract. (You may not want to extend, so be prepared for that!) When you work as a contractor understand that all contracts have a fixed duration. Know when yours ends, so you can be prepared to move on to another opportunity. There’s lots of them out there.
The choices you make for your career should never be driven by fear, avoidance, or discomfort. Focus on the “what’s next?” not the worse-case scenario of “what if?” If you want better work, you’re going to have to take a risk. If you’re serious about your career, you’re going to have to keep looking for better jobs. Success isn’t one job or one company; it’s sacrifice and difficult choices — if you want it, you going to have to make some of those.
Lastly, some work is just not suitable for contracting. Jobs with P&L, fiduciary, management, or agent responsibilities must be done by full-time employees who have the legal authority to represent the company. A contractor cannot represent the company. In tech, contractors often have limited access to systems because of security protocols. This is why many companies hire employees for IT/DevOps, but use contractors for other IT positions. If your work is not impacted by legal or security constraints, contracting could be an important career strategy for you.
Contractor or employee? In today’s gig economy, it really doesn’t matter much anymore. Evaluate each opportunity presented to you on its own merits, AND without fear. In that way, you’ll be better able to choose what is in the best interest of you and your career.
My book, The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker offers straight-forward, no-nonsense advice to anyone navigating today’s contingent labor market. If you’ve never worked as a contractor or consultant, it’s essential reading.
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