Contracting as a Career Alternative

by Brett Randolph

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The technical contracting industry provides a unique career opportunity for experienced professionals in most technical communications disciplines. It also provides a possible alternative to unemployment in view of the continuing "down-sizing" and restructuring activity going on in today's marketplace.

How Does It Work?

Companies in business and industry hire temporary professional personnel (also referred to as contract personnel or consultants) for both special projects and during peak workload periods to supplement their permanent staff. An entire team of contract personnel may be hired to meet an important deadline or to take project responsibility for a development program. Or, just as likely, a single individual may be hired for a highly specialized job to fulfill a one-time need.

Although the contract employee is paid by the contract service firm, the actual work is usually performed on-site at the client company. Occasionally, contractors do some or all of their work at home. Average contract assignments last several months. However, the original job requirement can range from one day to several years. Most firms are able to predict the expected duration of a contract assignment fairly accurately, but it is not unusual for a three-month job to be extended to six months or even a year.

Contract service firms assist contractors in marketing their skills (making these contracts).

Where are the Benefits?

Benefits for contract personnel vary from one contract service firm to another, but are usually more limited than the benefits available to permanent employees of most companies. To compensate, contract personnel are paid at higher rates than their permanent counterparts. A technical writer, for example, may earn forty or fifty percent more as a contractor than as a permanent employee. This increased income, along with increased job flexibility and challenge are important factors in attracting qualified personnel to the contracting industry.

Where are the Jobs?

Most contract technical writing and illustrating opportunities exist in specialized technical areas; such as software development, hardware design, both mechanical and electrical engineering, and manufacturing. The range of technical communicator jobs covers such disciplines as technical writing, editing, graphic design, documentation specialist, and publications production.

There are several types of technical contracting firms as well. Some specialize in a particular field, such as documentation, software development or even thermodynamics consulting. Others provide a spectrum of temporary personnel, ranging from writers and engineers to designers and technicians. The service areas vary too. Some firms are nationwide -- even international -- and others provide services only to a single local market.

Additionally, various skills are more in demand in certain parts of the country than in others. Contract personnel most in demand in the New England area are in the publishing, computer, electronics, insurance, banking, machine tool and process equipment industries. Other parts of the country have more temporary positions available in the petrochemical, automotive, marine, and aircraft industries. Generally speaking, a career in contracting will be especially viable in any skill area were there are shortages of qualified people, and in geographic areas experiencing rapid growth.

How Do They Work Together?

Technical contract service firms talk regularly with the technical personnel they represent and their client companies in order to best match the skills of available personnel with client needs. Contract personnel regularly provide the contract service firm with an up-to-date resume, advising the firm as to their availability for assignment and any new skills acquired from recent assignments. Regular contact with the contract service firm ensures that contractors are considered for the most desirable assignments available.

Of course, not everything is utopian in the world of contracting. On the upside,contractors realize increased income potential, job flexibility, and exposure to the latest in changing technologies. On the downside, the principal disadvantages include potential "down time" between assignments and limited benefits in the areas of vacation, holiday pay, insurance coverage, and tuition reimbursement.

Why Do They Do It?

Career contractors feel the ad-vantages outweigh the disadvantages. Changing on-the-job experience keeps their skills current as they move from one assignment to another. These acquired skills and the ongoing work by the contract service firm's staff in seeking new job assignments allows contract personnel to make the best of today's job market in difficult times.

Brett Randolph, who has been marketing contract services since 1973, owns and operates Randolph Associates, inc. in Boston MA.

© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally publishing September/October 1991 in the Boston Broadside