What is Contracting Really Like?
Gemma Church is ‘the freelance writer who gets tech’. A web development contractor and journalist, blogger and writer for the science and technology sectors. www.gemmakatechurch.com
Before I made the switch, I did a lot of research into what contracting was really like. The articles and advice I gathered mainly indicated more money, flexibility and a greater variety of work.
It all sounded too good to be true. So, if contracting is such an easy and safe way to earn a living - wouldn’t everyone be doing it?
The flip side is that there are more risks as a contractor, but there are also a great many advantages. Here’s my honest and personal opinion on my contractor life.
Let’s be honest, the high rates of pay are one of the main motivations to move to contracting.
Most contractors command day rates of between £500 and £750 , according to the Nixon Williams Contractor Survey 2015. Looks pretty attractive, right?
The key phrases here are "most contractors” and "day rates” - this is not the rate you will be able to charge 100 per cent of the time, and don’t forget to factor in quiet periods.
The killer financial blow is the gaps between contracts. It is far easier to turn down a contract than get one when the market turns on you, which is common.
You need to be disciplined and squirrel away a cash reserve to weather the rainy days. Work out how long you can do without an income before something bad happens. Aim to save up for a three-month dry spell as a minimum, but six months is a safer period.
Also, there are hidden costs to factor in as a contractor. Sick pay, annual leave, bonuses and pay rises are out of the window, but VAT and corporation tax will now be at the forefront of your mind.
Working as a contractor means you have to run a business as well. Most of this consists of accounting work in one form or another, so get an accountant.
You may think you can handle the bookkeeping yourself but if your turnover hits a certain threshold, an accountant needs to sign it off. You also need to work out the best way of working, whether as a limited company, sole trader or umbrella company. Keep abreast of the changing legislative landscape to make sure you’re still working in the most tax-effective manner. Ensure to make all the deadlines set by the HMRC and Companies House, file your expenses correctly, and understand IR35.
The list goes on and on. The UK tax system makes the worst code you’ve ever read look like a
syntax picnic - getting an accountant has saved me a lot of time and therefore money (not to mention a few grey hairs).
The Recruitment Agents
You will have to deal with recruitment agents on a regular basis as a contractor. Some are fantastic - they understand your skill set, career goals and the industry you work in. Others aren’t so great. Compile a list and keep in close contact with a few trusted recruiters.
Remember recruitment agents are salespeople, so make yourself as sellable as possible. Then you both get what you want. Fill your CV (truthfully) with the buzzwords the agent is eager to sell. Which leads me onto my next point...
The Contractor CV
A good contractor CV is very different to a permanent CV. It should read more "I did this” than "I was involved in that”. It needs to be updated regularly and focused on your project-based experiences, alongside everything else you can do, with a smattering of buzzwords to entice the reader.
But do not remove every mention of older work. As an IT contractor, you may be responsible for migrating legacy systems to new ones, for example. A contractor is also used to fill an unusual-shaped skills gap so try to match your specialist experience with some more diverse examples.
As a contractor you can expect to face a lot more interviews than a permanent employee. These interviews will focus on your ability to hit the ground running and how your skill set fits the job spec, rather than your ability to fit in with a team. Do your homework and brush up on the skill set the position needs to fill.
You will need to come across as a problem solver with the ability to think on your feet. The upside is that you won’t have to answer the "where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?” question again.
The flexibility of contractor work is fantastic. You pick your hours, your projects and can even take a month off, if you feel like it.
But it’s a two-way street. Sometimes you will have to go where the work is and sign up to a role that doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor you were looking for. Or you may have to work with a company that’s more than walking distance away from your home.
Remember flexibility is one of the privileges of the contractor lifestyle, not a right.
There are many subtle cultural differences between contractor and permanent work. As a contractor, you are just there to do a job and advancing ideas about the company are often unnecessary (although some forward-thinking businesses I’ve worked with welcome an outsider’s perspective).
While this does free you from the office politics of a 9-5, you may experience internal resistance of a different kind when working in a mixed team of contractors and permanent workers. Most managers tackle such issues head on (it’s not something I have experience of), but it is something to be aware of.
Here’s something I get asked a lot about working as a contractor: "Aren’t you lonely working from home every day?”
No. Not at all.
This preconception is wrong on two fronts. Firstly, I do not just sit at home typing away. I meet with clients on a regular basis and seem to spend more time on the phone than off it some weeks. Secondly, I proactively take part in the wider contractor and freelancer community - it’s a great way to make contacts and even find work.
There’s also one final major benefit to working alone: no more office parties.
But this is something to bear in mind if you’re very much a team player and thrive on the social interaction of office life.
So, what is contracting really like?
There are downsides, as with any way of working, but for every disadvantage there is a much bigger and better advantage. Worried about not getting any work? Yes, but contracting has allowed me to build up a considerable cash reserve. Don’t understand the IR35 from your P45? Get an accountant. Miss the hurly burly of the office? Hire out a shared office, work in a coffee shop or engage with the wider contractor community.
Because, with contracting, there’s the flexibility to resolve any issue you encounter and the ability to earn considerably more than a permanent employee.
If you would like to speak to someone or are seeking out advice, you can call our New Business Team on 01253 362062 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.