Economy forces contractors to consider salaried positions

Taking the leap from a salaried position with a stable company to a contracting job can be exciting, lucrative and freeing, and many IT professionals rode out the dot-com bubble by doing so.

But in the midst of a turbulent economy, a lot of those contractors are longingly looking back over at the other side of the fence.

Tamara Carrion-Robertson, a business systems analyst at Toronto-based Softchoice Corp. has worked as both a contract consultant and as a salaried employee, and said she couldn’t be happier with her decision to move to a full time job within a company.

While Carrion-Robertson enjoyed the compensation and the freedom associated with a self-employed lifestyle, she found that working as a contractor didn’t allow her to fulfil all of her career goals.

“I wanted to be able to get some experience and training without being expected to know all of the answers, as you have to when you’re a contractor,” she said. “I started contracting right out of school, and was learning as I was doing it. But I found that it wasn’t right for me in terms of building confidence and really learning about the business.”

Carrion-Robertson’s experience is not unique, according to Brian Allen, president of Blackshire Recruiting Services Inc. in New Westminster, B.C. There are a number of downsides to leading a contractor’s life, he said, and one of them is receiving adequate training.

“For people who haven’t been a contractor, the grass always looks green, with its big salaries. But what most people don’t realize is that contractors have to take care of their own skill development, whereas most companies will cover costs like that for employees,” he said.

Stacey Cerniuk, president of Vancouver’s Annex Consulting Group Inc. has seen several contractors reconsider permanent positions, noting that it’s likely a result of the economic downturn.

One of Cerniuk’s colleagues made the move from contracting to permanent employment as part of a skill set retooling. During the 1999 heyday, the contractor was branded as a Y2K project manager. But once 2000 wound down, he had a difficult time finding work. In order to remove himself from this branding, he found a permanent job where he was able to maintain his project management expertise and, according to Cerniuk, has since re-skilled himself.

While this strategy doesn’t always sit well with contractors who enjoy the freedom of the contracting lifestyle, for some there’s little choice, according to Dan Ferreira, president of Information Technology Recruiting Ltd. in Willowdale, Ont.

“Particularly now with less work out there, contractors are freaked out. They got used to making a lot of money, and when the money stops, they start to panic and say that they’ll take full time jobs,” Ferreira said.

While Carrion-Robertson’s move to a salaried position wasn’t based on panic, she has found that her current working conditions offer much more stability than she experienced in her contracting career.

“One of the first things to go when the market changes are contracting jobs. When things started to look grim I thought I’d make the switch to something with more job security and benefits, even though I know that every situation is much more precarious than it used to be,” she said

Carrion-Robertson noted that a contractor with a lot of experience and qualifications will be able to find work regardless of market conditions, but as someone starting along her career path, she felt more secure in a salaried environment.

Besides the element of uncertainty, a career in consulting brought along other concerns for Robertson-Carrion.

“I needed to do some travelling when I was consulting, but I’m married and want to have kids soon, so I don’t necessarily want to leave home a lot for my job right now,” she said.

Another downside to contracting was the stress, she said. Because the rates for consultants are generally quite high, clients often set a stringent work pace and often can have unrealistic expectations for their contractors.

“Most consultants don’t have the opportunity to build relationships with their co-workers in the same way that salaried employees do, and even though it’s a qualitative benefit, it’s definitely an advantage in reducing stress,” she said.

According to Allen, the stress can perpetuate even after the contract is finished.

“When contractors work, they work 110 per cent of the time. When they’re not working, they’re spending 110 per cent of the time looking for new work,” Allen said.

Despite the stress and uncertainty of consulting work, Carrion-Robertson said that she would consider returning to the contracting field if the circumstances were right.

“It would really depend on the situation, but if my kids were older and the market was good I’d definitely go back,” she said.