Rise of the career contractors

Confidence returning to the financial sector and greater desires to balance work and life, are contributing to a recent increase in the number of career contractors in the IT industry, according to recruitment firm Robert Walters.

“We’ve seen a big shift towards what we would call career contractors. These are highly skilled or experienced people who choose to forgo formal employment and instead move from project to project, contract to contract,” says Tom Derbyshire, Auckland IT recruitment manager at Robert Walters.

Derbyshire says a large portion of his candidates are looking for short term work, and the last time contracting was this prevalent was before the global financial crisis in 2008.

“In my experience, you usually see an increase in contractors during times of financial confidence,” says Derbyshire.

He says employers in certain markets are contributing to the trend, by specifically seeking contractors instead of hiring permanent staff, which is driving up the demand for skilled IT contractors.

“We’re seeing clients cutting down on permanent staff, and instead choosing to employ skilled short term staff. Unfortunately the number of suitable candidates available in New Zealand is very limited, which drives up the wages of those who are.”

Derbyshire says this is particularly true in Wellington, where transformation and effeciency drives in government departments mean many agencies are reluctant to increase their permanent headcounts.

“Our public sector clients in Wellington are paying a premium on short term, but highly skilled workers rather than investing in permanent staff,” says Derbyshire.

The rates being paid to IT contractors in the Wellington region mean employers are having to pay up to ten percent above the market rate to keep their permanent staff from pursuing a contract career, according to Robert Walter’s 2012 IT salary survey.

However, Derbyshire says overwhelmingly candidates say lifestyle, not money, is the main motivation for moving into the contracting space.

“Obviously you can stand to earn more if you’re contracting, but it’s also about lifestyle,” says Derbyshire.

“More and more I see candidates looking for six to nine month fixed positions. They save their money furiously while working, and use it to spend the rest of the year with family or go on holiday.”

Edwin Dando agrees with Derbyshire regarding the popularity of IT workers seeking contract positions, but does not think this is a recent trend.

“I don’t think this is a sudden thing, there have always been a lot of contractors in the New Zealand IT scene, and it’s been that way for a long time,” says Dando.

Dando is the managing director of Clarus, a consultancy firm which acts as a collective and support service for independent IT contractors.

Dando says moving into the contractor space is a career path followed by many IT professionals later in their career, and is usually a decision made to accommodate lifestyle choices, or to feel a level of freedom in their work life that a salary role cannot offer. But he warns that people need to be aware of what they are getting into when contracting.

“There’s definitely a downside to being a contracter which people don’t think about. It can be very lonely, and you often miss a lot of the comradre that comes with being part of a larger organisation,” says Dando.

Scott Mayo, a .Net web application developer, says the isolation is especially noticeable when working remotely.

“You can really miss that interaction you have with people in the office,” says Mayo.

Mayo works out of an office in his Wellington home, and is currently contracting as the lead developer for a company based in Auckland.

His advice to new contractors feeling isolated is to embrace social media, and make connections with like minded individuals through services like Twitter.

Mayo says new contractors often overestimate the improvement in their lifestyle, which can be determined by the client.

Mayo’s advice to new contractors is to be wary of their reputations.

“I haven’t found many jobs through agencies. Most of my clients have been through word of mouth, and I expect that is the same for a lot of others,” says Mayo.

“You need to be careful because New Zealand is a very small country. The good things you do spread, and the bad things spread even faster.”

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