Is contract work a good career move?

Like a lot of developers, you may be tired of the same old headaches at work. Or maybe you just crave new challenges or more freedom. If you're in a rut, you may want to explore the world of IT contracting. Here's a glimpse at the pros and cons.
Written by Wade A. Mitchell, Contributor
Do you ever get tired of the same old hassles at your job? Had it with “Smarty Marty” in the cubicle on the corner and his endless lectures on the virtues of UNIX? Does the thought of chasing your team leader down the career path to retirement make you want to sob uncontrollably? It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. Perhaps leaving your job to become a career IT contractor is just what the doctor ordered. This article provides information you can use to weigh that decision.

What is contract work?
Contract work can be defined as simply an agreement to perform a task for a certain rate of pay. The contractor is usually either acting independently or is working through an agency. In the case of IT professionals, a contract could be established to, say, build a database, install some software, or participate in a battery of testing. The project variety is endless. Most IT contracts are for projects that last anywhere from two hours to two years or more.

Is there a need?
Why would a company want to hire a contractor? Well, for one thing, many IT endeavors involve project work requiring a task with a definite end point. Let’s say, for instance, XYZIndustries wants to install, customize, and test a large database. It may not be wise for XYZ to hire a permanent staff of IT professionals for a job like this. What happens when the work is completed a few months later? Does it simply lay off its employees? That is a PR nightmare. But if contractors are brought in to do the work, they simply leave XYZ when the contract is fulfilled. No hassles.

Contract advantages
With a little imagination, the advantages to being a contract employee over a traditional permanent employee become clear. I will list a few to get you in the right frame of mind:

  • Flexibility—You can be your own boss without the bankroll usually required to start up a business. In most cases, you pick and choose your jobs. You set your own schedule. If you want time off between contracts, just take it. And in most cases, you set your own pay rate as well.
  • More cash—Contractors generally make a significantly higher wage than permanent employees performing the same tasks.
  • Time to update your skills—Many developers would love to upgrade their programming skills to maintain their competitive edge, if they could only find the time. As a contractor, you can set aside time for that between contracts.
  • Variety—Many contractors enjoy the variety of locales and people they encounter as they go from job to job. If your skills are marketable, you can find work just about anywhere you are willing to travel.
  • Networking—Think of the people you will meet and contacts you will make that will enhance your professional experience.
  • Contract disadvantages
    Sound too good to be true? Well, before I start to sound like a full-blown pitchman for contract work, let me say that contracting is definitely not for the timid. There are some downsides that must be considered carefully before quitting your current job for the life of a contractor. Here are a few drawbacks to contracting:

  • Security (or lack thereof)—To stay employed, you must keep your skills updated and marketable. You have to hustle a little bit. There is little stability in your employment. While it serves a client no purpose to release a contractor for no reason, you are truly an “at will” employee and can be released at any time. And there is no guarantee that there will be another job waiting in the wings.
  • Benefits—Depending on the arrangement you set for yourself, you may find that the benefits available to you are spotty, expensive, or both. In many cases, you will not have the usual company health plan to rely on.
  • Travel—To keep busy, you will need to go where the work is. You may have to travel out of your area to find your next contract. While this may appeal to some IT professionals, it is obviously a big hurdle for some.
  • Maintaining marketability—You will need to keep your skills updated to stay in demand. This can entail considerable effort and discipline on your part.
  • The decision is yours
    As you can see, contract work is not for everyone. The rewards can be great, but the risks can be considerable. It is a lifestyle change as much as a career change.

    If, after giving it some thought, contracting sounds interesting to you, my upcoming articles will help you chart your course. I'll help you conduct some important research before committing to this career change. I will also discuss some common misconceptions and pitfalls so that you'll be able to sidestep problems and maximize your experience.

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