What I’ve learned about contracting (so far)

(Flatiron District, New York. Photo: Amy Feldtmann)
(Flatiron District, New York. Photo: Amy Feldtmann)

I have worked as a freelance agency contractor in the communications profession since late 2008. Except for the 18 months working in the UK where it was a requirement of my visa, it has been entirely by choice (and really, I chose to go and work in the UK on the condition of that visa, so it really was a choice too).

There are many things I like about contracting, and only a few aspects that I find challenging. I’ve worked for many organisations as a contractor, mostly government, and have along the way had many people ask me what it’s like to be employed this way. So, for everyone else who is starting out contracting, or thinking about it, here are some of my thoughts*:

It suits some, and not others

If you like project-based work, with a clear task and an end-date to get everything done, you will probably like contracting. If you like change, variety, learning new things in new environments, starting work from scratch, you are also likely to enjoy contracting.While I think you do need to be aware of the politics of an organisation, it is fair to say that you can keep more of a distance as a contractor. The hourly/daily rates are likely to be higher than those of colleagues, but unlike them, you won’t get sick or annual leave, so that also needs to be considered if it suits you. If you prefer a long-term certainty, work environments where you are 100% ‘in’ the team, lots of career guidance and feedback from managers, you might not like contracting as much. Other contractors I’ve spoken with also say they love not having to get too deep into the politics of an organisation, and be able to just focus on the task and building their skills. Like all jobs, you need to work out what is best for you.

Employers know they need help, but they aren’t always prepared

Sometimes employers get you on-board in a rush — someone has resigned, or taken unexpected leave, or an urgent project needs work in a short timeframe. Employers get you in quickly, they need you urgently, but they aren’t always totally ready for what they need you to do buy they know they need someone. Or, they do know exactly what you have to do but just haven’t prepared for your arrival. Flexibility and patience on your part is key.

Get confirmation when you ask them to ‘show you the money’

Most contractors will work to an hourly, daily or weekly rate. If this is being negotiated by a recruitment agency, make sure you find out if the rate includes, or is additional to, superannuation (for Australians). I’ve worked with many contractors who have been caught out by this, and have had my own tricky conversations about it. Get it in writing — someone to email it to you — and do the calculations to make sure it meets what you are asking for.

Not everyone in the business will know why you are there

Sometimes a manager will have arranged you get you in quickly but not explained to the team why you are there and what you are doing (see the point above). Sometimes the team will have a different idea to what you are doing to what you do. This can be frustrating but usually entirely normal. Treat it as a positive and a way to start a conversation with your new colleagues; and your manager.

What is in the can, is often different to what is written on the can

The number of times I have been ‘sold’ a contract at interview about all of the great things I would be doing, and then I get there to find out I’m actually doing far less interesting and more basic work, is, well, many. It can be frustrating, and disappointing. Ask lots of questions at the interview about what you will be doing, so you can be really clear before you start.

You might be just a seat-warmer

Contracting can be quiet and boring at times, especially if you are just there ‘incase’ things get busy while a permanent staff member is on leave, or on another project. Always ask your manager if there is anything else you can help with, and keep your recruitment agency contact in the loop of this as they can also have a word to the employer. Long days are hard days.

Sometimes people forget you are a contractor; sometimes they can’t

My approach to contracting is that I don’t expect to be treated like a permanent staff member, in that I don’t expect to go to the Christmas Party, and I don’t mind if I’m left off the meeting invite to attend an all-business staff meeting. I’m happy to go in and get the task/s done in the limited time I have, get some more experience and learn some new things. Sometimes employers will want to treat you exactly like everyone else, which is nice, but they don’t always understand you aren’t interested in attending the staff-bonding afternoon, because you are only going to be there for four weeks, and an afternoon is precious time to get work done. Play this by ear with the manager’s expectations and your own interests (and be sure to use your best diplomacy skills).

Dial 9999 for IT

The IT department will be your best friend because it isn’t uncommon to turn up on the first day and not even have a computer set-up at your desk (this has happened for me multiple times; use it as a chance to brush-up on taking some old-fashioned pen-and-paper notes). Or, sometimes if you have a computer, you might not be set-up on the work email or file-sharing system. Other times it will be set up and ready to go on the first day, which is fantastic, and a good sign that the business is organised and prepared for you. If this hasn’t happened, I recommend a) just getting on the phone to IT yourself, and b) having a ‘work appropriate’ webmail (so janedoe@webmail rather than pinkkittykat@webmail — you get my gist) that you can give colleagues to send you documents in the meantime — assuming you have access to the internet of course.

Get clear on the timelines, and the task

Before you start (either in interview, or with your recruitment agency) get the task and expectations confirmed, and confirm your end-date. The more you can know in advance the better — it will mean you know what you need to focus on, and how long you have to do it (and if the task can realistically be completed in the time set). Find out what the main task is, ask has any part of it been progressed, who will you be working with, and what the team understands your role to be. If you are working with a recruitment agency to land the role, be sure to crosscheck what you understand the task to be, with what has been described to them (as it might make a difference to your rate of pay if you are, for example, really doing more specialised tasks than the agency has been told).

Keep your recruiter in the loop

Build a good relationship with your recruitment contact. Tell them when things are going well, tell them when you are having problems. Phone them as often as you need, and always follow up the phone conversation with an email to confirm what you discussed, so that your concerns or progress is documented.

You still have rights

Sure you don’t get paid on public holidays or if you are sick, and you might not get free flu injections from the workplace you are contracting in, but like everyone else, you still have rights when it comes to thing like bullying and discrimination. You are not a second-class citizen (even if some grumpy people might treat you like you are) so make sure you seek advice either from your agency contact, or through other means (i.e. credible legal information online) if you are having difficulties in this area.

Extensions usually happen at the 11th hour

Often you will get hired for a month or two, ‘with a view to extension’ — in my experience this is usually because of internal juggling, budgets or uncertainty around hiring a contractor. For example, an employer might know they can afford you now, but not sure about the next quarter, so will just sign you up for three months to start. If the work needs doing, the manager will find a way to extend you, but this might not happen until the final week of your contract; or final day. This is a very common scenario (and see next point).

Start preparing for the next role a month out

Try to have a conversation with the manager (and your recruitment agency contact) at least a month before the end of the contract to get a sense if an extension is being looked at, because if not, you need to start to look for the next gig.

Have a nest egg, especially for holidays

Easter, Christmas, New Year all have multiple public holidays for everyone to enjoy; which also mean no payment for contractors. Be sure to keep money aside along the way (as you would for regular savings) to help cover these ‘low pay packet’ periods. And, you never know when you might be ill, so be sure to prepare for this too.

Overall, I’ve had great opportunities working this way, on projects I’m not sure I would have got to work on any other way. Moving jobs regularly also means I’ve been able to meet many excellent people who I’ve both worked with and learned from, and I’ve experienced many types of organisational systems and cultures. This style of work, and the interesting challenges it brings, suits me well and is worth looking into if you are considering it too.

*This ‘advice’ is based on work in many organisations, using multiple recruitment agencies, both in Australia and abroad. It is not specific to any one organisation, and simply intended to provide information to individuals wanting to know what it is like to work in contracting roles; and maybe provide a little help.

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