If you’re currently employed in a permanent position, you may look at the contractors in your organisation with a degree of envy. They may earn more than you do, and they seem immune to the office politics. You may be thinking of moving into contracting yourself. Contracting/consulting can be very rewarding, but you need to be clear about your motives and the benefits you expect to realise from a career as a self-employed professional. Tax rules have recently been tightened around the classification of contractors (see , so it’s even more important than ever to become a contingent worker for the right reasons.
Contracting is often seen as a short-term option after retrenchment or when considering a change of employer, but it is not a temporary solution. It is a conscious decision to change your career to a completely different employment model, that of an independent entrepreneur. It is a lifestyle choice, not just an alternative work option.
What can you offer as a contractor?
Some skills are more in demand than others, and some lend themselves to contracting better than others. According to leading South African careers website CareerJunction, the three most in-demand skills in the country at the moment are software developers, middle/department managers and representatives or sales consultants. Software development remains the most sought-after skill set on CareerJunction. And software developers are very often contractors, so if this is your profession, you are in luck.
Other positions commonly contracted out by employers, according to Monster.com, are database administrator, systems administrator and web developer. If you work in the field of IT or engineering, you are well placed to consider becoming an independent contractor, but there are independent professionals in other fields too, such as human relations, communications, finance, to name but a few.
Five reasons to consider contracting
Having determined you have a marketable skill, and there are opportunities for contingent work in your field, what are the benefits of contracting? It is important to weigh these against what you are giving up, and be very honest with yourself about your priorities and your personality. Contracting is not for everybody. If you like or need the security of a regular income and prefer to know that your retirement and medical aid contributions are always covered…if the prospect of potential gaps between contracts makes you nervous…then contracting is probably not an option that suits your temperament. If you like to plan your holidays well in advance, and take off knowing that someone has your back while you are on leave, you may not enjoy the “always on” nature of independent contracting.
If, however, you like the idea of being your own boss, of having some say over the work you take on, and of potentially being able to earn more than you currently do in fixed employment, then the contracting lifestyle may be for you. Let’s look at some of the tangible…and intangible…benefits.
Contracting gives you the flexibility to work around your personal circumstances. You are free to choose when and where you work, and to take on the assignments that appeal to you, turning down those that hold less allure. The flexible nature of contracting allows you to take holidays when you like and not have to fit into a team schedule, though that may be more of an ideal than reality. Depending on the contract, you may need to be on site until project completion. However, you may then choose to take time off between contracts. Overall, contractors have greater control over work/life balance.
Contracting can broaden your experience and diversify your skills. Working across a wide range of companies, industries and assignments will allow you to learn new skills and gain exposure to different management styles and business processes. If you decide the contracting life is not for you, you have an enhanced CV to offer the next permanent employer. And, if you remain a contractor, with each contract you complete your skill set and experience increases, putting you more in demand as an independent professional.
One of the biggest perks of contracting is variety. It is hard to get bored when your working environment and your activities change regularly. You may work in completely different industries from one assignment to the next, even if the job you are doing is similar. Moving from one organisation to another will expose you to different cultures, which brings its own sense of variety.
Pay and conditions
It is no secret that contract workers get paid more than permanent employees in many sectors. It is not unheard of for independent contractors to earn up to twice as much as their permanent counterparts, with the added bonus of overtime pay for every extra hour worked. However, this does need to be balanced against the absence of paid sick leave or annual leave. It is very important to remember that the rate charged by the contractor is total cost to company. Many new contractors overlook the fact that they will have to pay their own medical aid, retirement fund and annual and sick leave out of this rate. Employers may balk at the rates contractors quote. They forget that they are paying for results, not attendance. They are not paying when the contractor is sick or on leave. They only pay for productive time. As a new contractor, the market rates can look very enticing, but it is important to factor all these costs in when calculating your total earning potential.
Be your own boss
For some, this is the biggest attraction of contracting. For the entrepreneurially minded, or those who simply don’t like being told what to do, it can be liberating to run your own business as an independent professional. But be realistic about what this means. You may be spared the annual performance appraisal but you will still be expected to contribute to the achievement of objectives and have to follow a work plan. Often, the motive behind contracting out certain functions or activities is the single-minded task focus and dedication to results that an independent contractor brings to the organisation or department. If a new system needs to be installed or a product launched, you will most certainly have to take instructions from the project leader or department head responsible for delivery. However, most contractors report a significant difference in attitude towards them compared to the permanent employees; they feel their contribution is more highly valued and they are treated as experts, rather than subordinates. And of course, if you don’t like the culture, once the project is complete you are free to move on, and you can decline future offers from that employer. This is what it means to be your own boss as a contractor.
As most contracts are short-term, i.e. between three and 12 months, contracting can seem insecure. But, paradoxically, the life of the independent contractor can be more secure. If you have skills that are in high demand, it is unlikely that you will be out of work, and you may be in a position to choose between a variety of offers, unlike your permanent colleagues, who must work on whatever their boss decrees. Many functions and roles that used to be filled by permanent employees are now being contracted out, to save overheads, so ironically you may be more secure as a professional than as an employee.
If you’d like to have a no-obligation conversation about your prospects as a contractor and your personal earning potential, contact Highveld on 012 367 5600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll help you decide if the contracting lifestyle is for you, and, if it is, we’ll get you started and on your way to a rewarding and lucrative career as an independent professional.