Earlier this year, Protagion asked to hear your experiences of contracting and interim roles. We are particularly interested to learn why you choose these flexible, time-bound and often project-related opportunities, mostly available when employers want a specialist skillset to do work they feel is not part of business-as-usual (BAU). We also wanted to gain insight into whether you move between these roles and permanent positions, and how these roles fit into your past and envisaged career path. This article shares your experiences, including what you like best about contracting and interim work, and what you don’t like. We hope that it is a useful resource to others considering these roles.
The contracting mindset
Versus other markets I’ve experience of, contracting is significant in the United Kingdom, especially within the actuarial, IT and change / programme management functions. When I first arrived in the UK (post financial crisis) from South Africa where permanent roles were far more common, the distinction was immediately apparent, and it gave the office environment a different feel. Contractors made up a sizeable proportion of a number of teams I engaged with, explaining the influence of this "contracting mindset" - I was particularly struck by how employers themselves pushed for more contractors "for more flexibility" across a wide range of projects taking place, possibly driven by ongoing regulatory change. It worried me that companies weren’t developing their permanent staff to take on these new project opportunities, arguing that they didn’t wish to "disturb BAU".
Experiences as a hiring manager
As a hiring manager with department budget responsibility, I’d previously experienced working with contractors from one side only, and remember being surprised about the year-after-year costs of contractors within our team as well as on projects we sponsored. My personal view was that it was much better to have permanent, committed staff, who we would train and develop to add value over a multi-year (planned) horizon than a constantly changing rota of people dipping in and out. I particularly recall one conversation with an expert in the company’s secretarial team about my frustrations… She confessed that she loved contracting roles herself, and wished she could go back to being a 'specialist-for-hire'. I realised that the situation was far more nuanced than I’d assumed until then, but it didn’t stop me, tongue-in-cheek, nicknaming her 'mercenary' from then on.
Over my years in the UK, I also had staff members in my teams choosing to leave their permanent roles to take up contracts elsewhere, which encouraged me to reflect on the relationship between employers and employees, and how attractive our development opportunities were, for example. I hadn’t realised too how much contracting rates can fluctuate over time, having a significant impact on contractors – see one professional’s perspective on this under "Drawbacks" below.
Another practical example of the "contracting mindset" is the difference in attitude between one of the managers in my team, and one of my bosses: she felt that team activities like strategy days and teambuilding sessions were for permanent (BAU) people only, because contractors were paid a day-rate for specific output, and that we shouldn’t pay them for discussing the three-year business plans. He vehemently disagreed, saying that everyone in the office should celebrate together, as we all played a role in the team delivery and office environment. To me, the distinction about who should be involved in debating the future strategy depended on who would be there to deliver that strategy e.g. if it was a three-month contract, I could see little value (for the company and the individual) in taking time to participate in something not affecting them – not to mention the competitive considerations. If, however, the likely outcome was that the contract would extend long-term, then they should be part of crafting that future.
And now, supporting Protagion members who are contractors has given us additional insight into your hopes and dreams. The remainder of this article shares your views (both members and other contributors to the article) on contracting and interim positions.
Reasons for becoming a contractor
Your reasons for initially stepping into the contracting world were amazingly varied:
Your approaches to contracting
Many of you enjoy the flexibility and variety afforded by contracting, with some "serial contractors" (possibly with breaks in between) and others who change between contracts and permanent roles over time.
Your approaches match your reasons for contracting. Some intend to perform interim work until they find suitable permanent roles or are now accepting a permanent role at the same organisation they were contracting with (as they "value the (relative) security [a permanent role] provides and benefits package"). They’ve tended to do fewer different contracts / interim roles, usually 1-3 of differing lengths and extensions. One commented: "I prefer to only look for new roles, interim or permanent, towards the very end of my contracts so I weigh up what opportunities are out there at those times. My 3 interim roles have provided very different experiences which I've enjoyed so it may be a little harder to move back to to a permanent role." Another said "I wouldn’t describe myself a serial contractor, I’ve only ever had three. I’ll take a permanent role when money gets tight."
Others move from contracting to permanent and back again, adjusting as circumstances change. One described his experience as: "I've done 2 contracts, both for almost 2 years with permanent jobs in between them both. Each time I contracted, it was because it gave me a useful temporary role utilising my acquired skills. I was definitely more picky about my permanent roles as they had to offer career progression and the chance to operate in an area that I hadn't worked in before to offer learning experience."
The third main grouping is professionals who have done multiple different contracts (10+) at the same organisation over a long time period (5+ years).
The next type is those who’ve become adept at contracting over many years, changing organisations or projects regularly. Your experiences covered 5 to 12 different organisations each, over 5 to 14 years. One explained: "I like the change and learning new industries / businesses". Another described her breadth of contracts with "[I’ve had] contracts ranging from 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 18 months and my longest 4 years. I have often had a number of renewals within the same organisation."
The remaining category is those who make the change to contracting later in their careers, after multiple decades in permanent roles. These individuals value the additional time off that contracting allows (saying, for example, that permanent roles allowed "no more than 3 weeks off at any time over the entire period"). They also cite (renewed) job interest from seeing different perspectives. One person described his experiences: "over 5 years [since leaving permanent work] I’ve worked about 36 months on four assignments for just two companies, with contracts varying in length from 1 to 18 months".
We asked you what you particularly enjoy about contracting or interim roles, and (unsurprisingly) your answers echoed some of the reasons contracting appealed to you originally. In your own words:
One summarised his exposure to both contracting and permanent roles with: "I personally have enjoyed both... Like any job, it heavily depends on the culture and the team in which you work. The variety and challenge of the work is also a big factor. I have been lucky in that the roles I've had provided interesting work, in businesses with good culture and enjoyable colleagues."
One of the biggest drawbacks of contracting / interim roles is a direct result of the variety and flexibility they offer: uncertainty. This was described in a number of ways:
One actuary explained the uncertainty around the "demand for services e.g. Solvency II, IFRS17, and economic crashes [do] cause cycles. Modelling systems come and go so if your one falls from favour, your skills become less valuable or worthless". He added that "[if] a big employer... ceases taking on contractors, the market floods and rates drop" and "the supply side also varies, if a large company like EY/KPMG/PWC makes their workers redundant and they try contracting, the market has over supply and rates drop".
Because the hiring companies are located in a multitude of places, contractors find they need to travel to where the work is / be flexible on location to find the right role at the right salary level. "Working away from home" was highlighted as a drawback, although some like the travel opportunities provided by contracts in Europe, for example. One said that he has a limited range of locations that he is prepared to work in which significantly limits the interim opportunities available to him. Another commented that he found it difficult staying away overnight for three nights a week over a year-and-a-half when his young daughter really missed him.
Two practicalities were also mentioned: "the large amount of paperwork involved to keep on top of time sheets, invoicing, receipts etc" and the additional costs which go along with contracting (e.g. business running expenses). One person remarked: "[these] can make you wonder if you do actually take home more money as a contractor."
Another major category of downsides was the risk of the work you are best suited to not being available to contractors. One contractor warned: "You need to carefully consider how you like to work and what the role entails. Some roles require you to work alone on something very specific for a period of time with little interaction with the rest of the immediate team or organisation. This may suit some people but I don't enjoy working like this." Another reflected that "you don't have a lot of control of the type of work that comes your way; but you can choose which ones you apply to". Others commented on the difficulty in finding senior roles and/or management positions:
The final category of drawbacks was related to perceptions of contractors and distinctions between contractors and permanent staff. The comments (and advice) here included:
Our follow-up article in this series will cover advice and suggestions from contractors on how they’ve managed their careers, and their reflections on the ultimate value to their careers of their contracting experiences. Please look out for it in 2018. If you’d like to add your thoughts to that article, please make contact with us.
Once again, thanks to all of you who kindly shared your views with us for this article. We appreciate your time and input. This time, almost all of you preferred to remain anonymous, with only those in the Change / Programme Management and Marketing/Proposition sectors more adventurous – a special thanks to Mel Gardiner, Phil Oxenham, and Gavin Erasmus. Whether this is because actuarial and IT contractors tend to prefer to keep their heads down, who knows… We found it particularly interesting to consider the differences between those who opt for Executive Assistant roles and those who opt for contracting/interim roles… Let us know if you have your own theories about this too!