Decision makers in the old west were faced with a conundrum when a rowdy gang rolled into town. Should they hire a new deputy to work with the sheriff or bring in a roaming, hot-pistoled gunslinger to take care of business? IT decision makers of the 21 st century have a similar problem on their hands when figuring out whether to complete a project or solve IT issues with a permanent employee or a contractor.

According to Brian Allen, president and CEO of Blackshire Recruiting Services Inc. in New Westminster, B.C., the way that an organization should go about fulfilling its staffing needs has been an ongoing debate.

“The biggest argument for hiring contractors is when you have a seasonal need or a need that is intermittent,” he said. An example of this, he said is if a company is building a new application. Once the application goes into production, the developer is no longer required.

“If a company’s needs are more stable and consistent and it doesn’t have a lot of big projects, a permanent employee is a better resource, because it costs a lot less than hiring a contractor on a long term basis,” he said.

Stacey Cerniuk, president of Annex Consulting Group Inc. in Vancouver and a long-time IT contractor, sees companies hiring contractors for very specific reasons. The first is that an organization may be short of in-house skills to complete a particular assignment, such as project management.

“A lot of organizations like to bring in someone with leading edge skills to provide knowledge transfer to the permanent staff,” he said.

A second reason that a company will opt for a contractor is that, while it might have the needed skills in-house, those with the skills might be occupied with other projects.

“Everyone’s trying to do more with less, so staffing complements have really dropped in IT. When there are strategic things that need to be done, sometimes companies have to supplement their teams with external consultants,” Cerniuk said.

Contractors are also valued for their independent perspective. Cerniuk described a scenario of a company wanting to select a commercial software package, but which is having difficulty in determining requirements. “They can’t call on a vendor because any vendor will be biased, but an independent third party will better manage the situation.”

While these reasons are still keeping contractors employed, Dan Ferreira, president of Information Technology Recruiting Ltd. in Willowdale, Ont., has seen a shift in employment strategies over the past year or so. According to Ferreira, more companies are opting to engage a contractor for a few months and then try to hire him or her as a permanent employee.

Part of the reasoning behind this is because once a company invests in a contractor in terms of training and teaching about the business, it is frustrating to lose the person.

Cerniuk agreed that, for certain jobs, a permanent employee is the better choice for an organization.

“If a company needs someone to do business analysis work, I’d recommend an in-house person rather than a contractor so that whatever the individual learns about the business stays in-house,” he said.

One challenge that many employers face when bringing a contractor into an organization is a culture clash with permanent employees.

“Bringing in a contractor from the outside world that’s focused on getting the job done isn’t going to be interested in staff development or mentoring or team building because it’s not a part of their mandate,” Allen said.

He also noted that there is often resentment towards contractors by the permanent staff if they are brought into a company to take on challenging products or work with new technology. Striking a balance between hiring contractors for these positions and training staff is difficult for many companies, Allen said.

“If you constantly contract out these jobs, you’re left with a staff with antiquated skills, who deliver a substandard quality of work and lack in motivation. All the good people in companies like this leave because they don’t want to clean up after the contractors that come in,” he said.

Cerniuk has had first hand experience with having to integrate into an organization as a contractor.

“We do a lot of work here for the government and Crown corporations, which are unionized environments and they often have a mixed model of permanent staff and contractors. It can be a sensitive thing if you’re a contractor coming into this type of environment because the staff knows that this position could be filled by a permanent person,” he said.

Cerniuk’s company has made it a point to focus not only on the scope, schedule and budget of a project, but also on making it a positive experience for those that the contractors are working with.