Large employers are set to dramatically overhaul their workforces over the coming five years in response to shifting skill needs, and we’ll see some massive employee movements as a result.
They’re mass changes that will put another nail in the coffin of employer loyalty: the idea of sticking with the one employer for years, if not for decades and your entire career, is almost over.
But one deep structural change that's set to impact tech and knowledge-based workers particularly is the growing appetite from employers for hiring more contractors.
Indeed, by 2025, 41% of companies surveyed by the World Economic Forum say they plan on expanding their use of contractors for task-specialised work.
It’s already happening at major tech firms like Google, with the New York Times revealing back in 2019 that Google hires more temporary, vendor and contract workers globally than it has full time staff. The Times referred to this as the “shadow workforce”.
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Contracting can typically offer a higher hourly and daily rate. It may present a wide range of opportunities -- giving you experience at different employers -- and in many cases the ability to work on clear and set projects, thereby freeing you from some of the office politics that can occur in more permanent positions.
But of course contracting work is mostly insecure, especially long-term -- and may not pay sick and holiday pay. Contractors can quickly become the first costs that are cut when things are not going so well. And being a contractor requires constant personal business development work -- you need to be thinking about the next contract or client, just as you’re working on the current one. Contracting may also, unfortunately, mean less access to direct sponsors, allies and learning opportunities at work.
Some people go into contracting by choice -- looking for the added flexibility, autonomy, more money and satisfaction in taking on specific work as they need. But others have no choice -- especially in a tough job market. In many cases, individuals are made redundant and get placed on contracts as companies realise they can’t actually survive without their support and expertise, putting those contractors in a constant state of uncertainty.
Regardless of how you end up as a contractor in the corporate sector, there are opportunities to boost your income. And possibly to take back from corporates a little of what you're losing from the insecurity.
Develop your personal brand
Developing a personal brand doesn’t have to be over the top -- you don’t need to create a podcast or be writing multiple articles a week. But it does mean keeping your skills and experiences up to date on your LinkedIn profile and other avenues for recruitment in your industry.
It may mean creating a personal website highlighting your skills and availability and specifically what you can bring to the business.
The goal is to develop your reputation as a go-to source. A key and reliable person in your field – thus ultimately giving you the opportunity to pick and choose clients.
Networking doesn’t need to become your job. And unlike being in a salaried position, you’re not getting paid while you’re on the networking clock.
But networking can be done in subtle and efficient ways that ensure people recognise your skills, the value you bring to set projects, and the availability you have. Ultimately it starts in the roles where you contract -- getting to know those around you so they put in a good word to others. It also involves maintaining relationships as best as you can, so that you’re top of mind when further opportunities emerge.
Networking, word of mouth and repeat business will ultimately assist you in sourcing contracts personally – thereby avoiding losing money through agency fees.
Consider yourself a business
You’ll have expenses to pay that you may not have as an employee. You have new clients to attract. You may have added taxes to manage yourself. And you need to consider the insecurity that comes with contracting, and be planning for times when you may have no work. As such, look at yourself as a business and determine your profits and losses accordingly.
Get strategic on how you select and pursue opportunities. Continually undertake self-based performance reviews on how you’ve spent your time and the work you’ve achieved. Also, like any good business, look for avenues to leverage your assets to add more value to others and ultimately earn more.
Don’t sell yourself short
Set an hourly rate that takes into account all factors of your income -- including what you’re missing without holiday and sick pay, superannuation, and any expenses that you’d have paid as an employee.
It helps to determine your desired annual salary with any required expenses added on, then look at how many hours you can dedicate to earning that salary as well as how many hours you need for personal, holiday leave and other factors. Professional Contractors and Consultants Australia shares some great tips on determining saleable hours taking into account leave, superannuation, salary continuance and other factors.
Overall, remember: they’re paying for the years of experience and your personal expertise, not merely the hours you put in.
Find a niche area and own it
Well paid contractors typically have niche experience: experience they can’t always find within their permanent workforces, but that’s needed at certain project points.
The best niches are in fields that didn’t exist five or even one year ago, where companies have not had a chance to hire in what they need or to even understand what they need. Getting comfortable within this niche, and keeping yourself updated with necessary learning and development (don’t forget L&D costs into your hourly rate) will set you apart. Owning a niche will also put you on the path to consulting, as listed below.
…But expand as needed
Going niche is risky given the pace of change in workplaces. The skills in top demand today can quickly change - and/or become saturated with contractors.
So while you’ll have a niche, keep in the back of your mind how and where you can expand -- especially in order to meet evolving demands relevant to what you already know. Again, keep up the learning and development, factoring any costs associated here into your hourly rate.
Move from contractor to ‘consultant’
If you’ve got that niche and plenty of experience, a shift to being a ‘consultant’ could be significantly more lucrative. You could make this shift after a large contract ends – asking the client if you can continue to consult on the continuing project. You could even set up multiple retainers with various clients that you’ve contracted for, offering set consulting services to assist with their continued needs.
Consulting is an opportunity to provide more advisory services, assisting with overall strategy and often more creative work than what comes with the direct contracting. Consultants may also be responsible for making recommendations of other contractors, which provides a great opportunity again to expand your network and support others within your circle.