This third article in our Contracting series covers advice and suggestions from contractors on how you’ve managed your careers, and your reflections on the ultimate value to your careers to date of these contracting experiences. It ends with five suggestions for how to continue developing your career as a contractor. Thanks once again to all of you who shared your insights with us for this article.
It follows on from our two previous Contracting articles:
1) Contracting – Experiences of Being a Specialist-For-Hire, which covered your experiences of contracting and interim roles, what attracted you to contracting and the approach you’ve taken over time, what you like best, and what you don’t like
2) Contracting/Gigging – Uncertainty for Millennials, which shared a New York Times article discussing the pressure on professionals from the “treadmill of temporary work”, and an Allianz survey showing that 70%-80% of millennials value stability and security over change and flexibility
In the first we reported that a number of contractors highlighted the importance of taking responsibility for your own career, learning and growth, with one saying: "If you're not consciously managing your own development you may find yourself slipping relative to your peers." This is because longer-term developmental opportunities and managerial roles are more likely to be given to permanent employees.
You shared a wide range of reflections on the impact of contracting on your careers, covered in the following paragraphs. Some of these relate to the stage you find yourself in your career too.
A choice of “cash over career”
Some of you were acutely aware that by choosing contracting you were losing the opportunity for long-term development by your employer: “in general, you are taken on because you already have a specific skill, rather than to develop you”.
One of you, who changed disciplines to financial services after 10 years in another profession, described it as: “my career progression hasn’t been stellar [so] I feel that in my position, I’m better off taking the money and resigning myself to minimal progressions, and slightly tedious work”.
A different approach to life
Another senior contractor described how she made an active choice to step off a development track as a permanent employee (including executive training, and opportunities to work on global strategic initiatives) to “go back to basics doing something I had always loved” as a contractor i.e. more technical than managerial. In her case, the change was motivated by her desire to spend more time with her child while he was growing up.
Now that he has left school, she is continuing with contracting because of the flexibility for travel and time out it offers, while at her level still offering her the “strategic environment and contact” she enjoys. Looking back, she concluded that “over time, contracting doesn't have to affect your career path - it's just a different approach to life”.
Others speak of how contracting has broadened your horizons, and allowed you to live and work in different places. While for them, it has been as much a lifestyle choice as a career choice, they speak fondly of the different skills they’ve picked up and people they’ve met. One cautions though: “if you're looking for status from your working life, then perhaps it is not for you”.
Another explained how contracting has allowed him to experience a more diverse set of industries and clients, even more than his previous role in consulting (where he focused on one sector). He describes his change (within the context of his long-term career strategy) as: “Initially I had to prove myself which meant taking on less responsibility than I was used to but once I had the contracting credibility and network I caught up with and overtook my original role levels”.
Looking before you leap
The types of people who prefer permanent employment, and hence who take contracts as a short-term strategy only, say that they find them a useful way to “try before you buy” i.e. get to know a new company’s culture, processes, and how they treat employees before committing long-term. Similarly, they point out that the company also knows before hiring you permanently what they’d be getting as you are “an internal candidate who the firm know and trust” - which helps in negotiating a good role and salary.
This approach of “dating” a number of companies through shorter-term contracts before deciding which one you want to devote the next phase of your career to is definitely a valid approach – while this type of research might take longer, it means the chance of a happy (and balanced) match is far higher.
Some contractors describe how interim work has provided them “great exposure to different companies and areas of work which has given [them] a better idea of the types of roles [they] enjoy”. And, this additional self-insight is particularly useful in charting the future direction of your career, as you know your strengths and weaknesses better, as well as where you are uniquely placed to add value.
Building specialist technical skills
For those who prefer to specialise, and focus on their technical competencies, contracting allows the opportunity to “focus on very specific items and get into them in quite some depth”, precisely because it is those finely-honed skills that you are hired for. This reiterates how contracting is a choice to be much more focused in your career, rather than generalist.
One described this focus as being “an expert in a very obscure field”, citing examples of specific administration systems, unique historical knowledge (including applicable regulations), and specialised modelling software or programming languages. In effect you become the go-to person for that niche.
Rounding off your career
One individual who became a contractor after decades of work experience explained how he’s been quite selective about what he’s gotten involved with, so he “didn’t feel any career progression setbacks”. Instead, he describes it as a “really interesting and valuable way of rounding off my career”, rather than using it as a springboard to new permanent things. He’s particularly enjoyed how his contracting experiences have given him confidence that he’s been doing things right (as “all companies do things in very similar ways”) and is positive that any future moves should hold little fear.
Our career suggestions for contractors
We conclude this article with five suggestions for how to continue developing your career as a contractor:
Please let us know in the comments if you have additional suggestions for those new to contracting on how to make the most of it both in the short-term and as part of a multi-decade career.