In today’s economy, where there are fewer full-time positions than there have been in the past, abundant opportunities are available for job seekers willing to consider contract or contingent workforce positions. Firms in the fast growing information-technology sector often engage a significant percentage of their teams as contractors or outside consultants. This practice is not a short-term trend or fad. Filling project roles with contingent workers is an emerging reality representing a significant segment of today’s job market.
While securing full-time employment is likely to remain the ultimate goal of most job seekers, contract work provides many benefits, with flexibility at the top of the list. Contract or project-based jobs may lack traditional full-time job perks such as health insurance, paid vacation, and 401K plans. However, they often compensate for this with a slightly higher wage (per hour) than a comparable salaried position, allowing you to pursue benefits on your own. Taking on project-based contract work can open the door to new opportunities and help you expand and diversify your skills in new areas. It can also help you hone your skills and expertise in a particular area. Either way, you do so while bringing in income, growing your network, and building up work history on your résumé. More important, the choice is yours. Contract work lets you pursue exciting opportunities to practice new skills, work with new people, or even live in a new place—all with the flexibility of a limited time commitment. If you are continuing to seek full-time status, there is no better way to get a foot in the door and showcase your skills, work ethic, and personality than by joining a company as a contractor. The techniques and process to specifically pursue project-based contract work are similar to seeking traditional employment opportunities. Prioritizing the following tips can impact your value as a project-based contractor and help you differentiate yourself from the crowd.
Tip 1: Think Like an Entrepreneur
As a contractor, you are your own business and your own business development manager. Don’t think of yourself as simply a potential employee. Instead, think of yourself as your own company and of your prospective employers as clients. Consider what you need to do to sell yourself and what your value proposition is to these clients. Write out your talking points or an “elevator pitch.” Print your own business cards with your key information; they are inexpensive to create and can assist in presenting yourself as a polished professional. Whether on LinkedIn or other social media platforms, your online profile should reflect your personal brand. What does it say about you? What makes you stand out? How will you provide value to paying clients? How will you perform to ensure they give you an excellent reference? Last, remember that not all business is good business. In contract-work opportunities, consider what is best for you. Don’t be afraid to be turn someone down if you don’t feel the project is a good fit for you or you feel that it will be challenging to provide excellent value for your potential customer.
Tip 2: Invest in Yourself
It may sound cliché, but there is no better time than the present to invest in you. Whether pursuing an educational degree, a professional certification, advanced training, or working on a project that enhances your skills, your credentials are what set you apart from the competition. Joining the right professional associations can add to your credentials and provide important networking opportunities. Don’t sit by and wait for opportunities to come to you. Demonstrating initiative is a differentiator. Bet on yourself.
Tip 3: Market Yourself
Most contractors are hired not for their general background, but rather for their specialized experience in a particular skill, area of expertise, or project history. When targeting contract-work opportunities, highlight in your résumé or CV the details of your specialized technical background, core competencies, professional certifications, and any past project performance that make you the ideal contractor to hire for that particular opportunity.
Besides your education and work experience, think about what else you can use to market yourself as an expert at what you do. How do you share your expertise with others? Do you have a blog? Or perhaps an active professional social media profile? Publishing your own content can expand your network and get you noticed by other thought leaders and even prospective employers.
Finally, speaking well about yourself is one thing, but having someone else say good things about you is more effective. A glowing endorsement or recommendation from an employer, client, or other thought leader in your profession provides the third-party validation essential to position you as a talented expert.
Tip 4: Network, Network, Network
Despite what you may think, your search for contract work—or any job for that matter—does not always require your computer. Spend time getting to know the firms and the individuals that hire for project-based or contract work. Online research is a start, but there is no substitute for a strong in-person encounter. Career fairs can also be a good place to begin, but trade association events (remember Tip 2?), industry meetups or conferences, technology user groups, and other professional gatherings are great places to meet the people and companies that drive job opportunities in your profession. As a contractor, you need to always be building your network and your pipeline of opportunities, even as you are working. Whether you take a project that lasts six weeks or six months, always keep an eye on the opportunities ahead. Stay in touch with your contacts and hiring managers as you move on to new projects, keeping those in your network aware of your availability to take on work.
Tip 5: Take Care of Your Needs
As previously mentioned, project-based contract work often does not include the full benefits packages offered by full-time employment, so it is important to know some of the ways to secure these perks on your own. Start with health insurance. Changing regulations should make it possible to secure a policy on your own; however, in some cases, you may be able to secure a group health plan through a professional association. No 401K? Study up on IRAs. And as for your tax status, know the ins and outs of the various tax forms required for contractors, and make sure you consult with a good accountant on these issues. If you are an incorporated independent consultant, you will most likely need to secure business liability and other often required insurances. Check with your attorney to make sure you have covered any legal or contract issues.
Whether you use it as a stepping-stone to build work history on the path to full-time employment or as a way to remain flexible and opportunistic, project-based contract work is an increasingly common arrangement between job seekers and employers. Knowing how to build your value as a contractor will help you differentiate yourself from the crowd.
Philip Lowit is cofounder and CEO of TSymmetry, a nationally recognized information technology consulting firm and systems integrator. He has more than 20 years of leadership, entrepreneurship, and business development experience in the information technology and human capital industries. Philip was recognized as a 2012 SmartCEO Future 50 Award winner. He is an active member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Business Executives for National Security (BENS), AFCEA, and the TechServe Alliance. Philip holds an MBA with a focus in Marketing from Fordham University and a Bachelor of Science business degree from Rider University.