regional vice-president, Robert Half Technology

Back in those heady, dot-com frenzied days in the late 1990s, contract project work for IT staff was plentiful, interesting and well-paying.

“Contractors were gold in those days,” says RoseAnne Mussar, a senior software developer who’s been working as an independent contractor since 1998. “I found it easy to find stimulating, well-paying work then. I felt valued.”

But the nature and composition of contract work has since changed. While many IT workers made a conscious decision to pursue contract project work in the past, the reality today is that it is often a necessity, not a choice.Employers are cautious, so often they’ll hire people on contract, see how they’re working out, and then they’ll convert them to permanent.Sandra Lavoy>Text According to a recent survey conducted by Robert Half Technology, a recruiting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., only nine per cent of CIOs say they plan to add full-time IT staff this year; 87 per cent say they plan to maintain current staff levels. Although no hard figures are available for contract hiring levels, trends can be sniffed out from these full-time projections, says Sandra Lavoy, a regional vice-president with Robert Half Technology’s Ottawa office.

“The market has changed compared to a year ago when we didn’t see that much hiring. Employers are cautious, so often they’ll hire people on contract, see how they’re working out, and then they’ll convert them to permanent,” she says. The duration of these contract-to-hire arrangements typically correlate with the probationary period of 10-12 weeks allowed by law, says Lavoy.

The situation is a bit different for independent contractors seeking project work, she says. During an economic slump, businesses don’t embark on major IT projects, they make do with the status quo to the extent possible.

“A lot of our contract work is project-based compared to last year, when many projects were on hold due to budgetary restraints. But now that the market is turning around, employers are calling us for staff,” she says.

In the good old days, contract work was a way to work on new, interesting projects, but the trend has reversed today. Employers tend to assign their existing full-time staff to new IT projects as a way to provide their people with new challenges and career development opportunities, says Lavoy.

Contract staff are brought in to handle the day-to-day workloads of full-time staff deployed to projects, or companies may hire consultants to do a transfer of knowledge to their full-time staff, she says.

Although RoseAnne Mussar’s initial experience with contract work was good, the tide has turned in recent years. After the dot-com crash, she says, a lot of people who couldn’t find full-time work started contracting, so competition for the few positions available was fierce. Employers could afford to cherry-pick the best qualifications and experience for the least amount of money.

“In the private sector, they were basically looking for slave labour,” she says. “There was less project work available, it paid much, much less, and they were expecting you do far more.”

Although she managed to obtain a few contracts during the 2000-2002 period, Mussar was put off by the demands of the job market.

Notwithstanding qualifications that include an honours degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Waterloo, and work experience at Bell Northern Research, Nortel, and UniCAD, she received very few interviews. She joined the ranks of discouraged workers, neither employed nor looking, for about two years before managing to land a position at a startup company this year through personal contacts.

The bad news is that employers are still picky, says Mussar, who watches the job boards regularly. Employers seem to want junior people so they can pay them less money — but still expect them to have the experience of a senior person.

“That’s what I’m seeing in all the job postings: They want to hire junior Einsteins, but want to pay them peanuts,” she says.

The good news is that more jobs do seem to be available. In previous summers, Mussar has observed slumps in job postings, but not this year. “Usually, you don’t see anything at all in the summer but there’s been a steady stream of postings,” she says.

Mussar does see encouraging signs of recovery in the IT sector. “I’d say things are picking up, but it’s not a thundering roar of jobs, it’s slow and steady. I think it will be a long, drawn-out process,” she says.

Notwithstanding her recent experiences, Mussar still thinks contracting can work out well for some people. “If you’re young and ambitious, then contracting is probably a good idea, especially if you have expertise in hot skills like [voice over IP] or embedded programming,” she says.

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