Is contracting the career kiss of death?

by 02 Sep 2008

Q. Ive been working as a contractor in various HR roles some specialist assignments such as recruitment and L&D, and some more generalist type roles. I feel that the experience I have gained has certainly added to my knowledge base and competencies but was interested to know what you thought about contracting generally are there long-term benefits or is it the kiss of death for my career?

A. This is a great question, because many people “find themselves” in a contracting role and rarely stop to think about the possible implications of that until a year has passed! There are a number of key factors to consider – the most critical being to first establish your longer-term career goals.

Do you think about your personal career map and where you want it to lead? What are your career objectives? It’s easy to be consumed by others’ need for career guidance without putting some investment into your own, so everything needs to be seen in the context of your overall career plan.

Contracting can be a double-edged sword. From a bigger picture perspective, some of the things that shape our careers, indeed our lives, are unaffected whether you work as a contractor or permanent employee. Great personal and career mentors, for example, can be found regardless of your status.

Other factors to consider are also multi faceted – depending on where you are headed in your career, contracting can either add to that plan brilliantly,or detract from it with the same success.

The people I work with: Often cited by most of us as a key reason for enjoying what we do and where we do it. As a contractor, you can find the team you are working with to be everything you hoped for and find it difficult to move on when that time inevitably comes. Sometimes not. The same risk exists whenever you start a new role, of course, however with contracting the upside is that you are only committed for the life of the contract.

Developing your skills: Another key factor for most of us is to be able to keep learning. The downside of contracting is that you are unlikely to be paid for training or have courses funded for you. On the other hand, you have greater flexibility to do what you want to do and that may include taking time out to study full time. Similarly, working in new roles with new teams and challenges is a great way to continue your personal development as well. Just make sure you keep your resume up to date!

Financially better or worse? Given some good accounting advice and a fair rate of reward, there are definite advantages to contracting. It is easier to set your own worth – for instance when moving from one contract to another –providing you can find something that suits your skills. However if income stability is important to you then contracting may prove less appealing than a permanent job.

In general, you wouldn’t necessarily expect contracting roles to be paid any more or less than their permanent counterpart, but bear in mind that a contractor has higher expenses (particularly if a Ltd Co) and isn’t (usually) paid for leave or training. The key is to ensure that you are being paid a fair rate and are handling your finances effectively, so I would recommend seeking professional advice from your recruitment specialist and accountant respectively.

Career Progression: Contracting is not a barrier to progression in itself – you just need to ensure that, as previously mentioned, you maintain a good log of your skills so you can review your achievements both for your own sake as well as when looking for the next contract. A surprising amount of contractors are offered permanent roles, too, so there are opportunities to advance your career through contracting.

So, overall, if you like the idea of independence and are a self starter, you don’t mind being slightly on the outer (sometimes you are “one of the team”– sometimes you’re not!), and your “career map” requires you to experience a wide diversity of environments, tasks and skills, then contracting could be for you.

Even if it doesn’t immediately appeal, and you find yourself with an opportunity to take on an interesting contract, don’t think you are committed to contracting for life. You never know, it may turn out to give you just the career path you’ve been looking for – providing you know what that is!

By Emma Egan, manager, Hays Human Resources

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