Contract work has long been tempting.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s gig economy was strong and growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34% of American workers were engaged in contract work in 2017. Experts predicted that by 2023, that number would grow to 52%.
In the midst of that expected trajectory, the pandemic disrupted traditional perceptions of work and the workplace. As people shifted to remote work, they experienced the benefits of not being tied to an office space. Among other things, remote work can provide a better work/life balance as well as increased independence, flexibility, and productivity. At the same time, people learned new ways of doing their jobs, particularly in terms of adopting new tech tools.
With the insights and knowledge that they gained during the pandemic, many workers are reluctant to return to the office. While some companies are planning to allow remote and/or hybrid work arrangements, contract work provides an enticing alternative.
And, actually, hiring contract workers is beneficial to businesses as well. The labor market is shifting quickly right now. In order to stay viable, businesses need to adapt to new workplace models – including the trend towards gig work. The market for contract workers is already lucrative and promises to become more so.
In short, there’s never been a better time to enter the gig economy. But even with the apparent opportunities and benefits, the move to contract work can be fraught with uncertainty. How do you get started as a contract worker? How do you find clients? How do you manage without a regular paycheque? What about benefits?
There’s a lot to consider. But the payoff can be well worth it.
Considering Gig Work In The Engineering And IT Fields
Originally, the word “gig” referred to a single-occasion musical performance. Its meaning was expanded to include all types of temporary work. The gig economy is often associated with blue collar work and side hustles. In recent years, companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Bellhops, AirBnB, and Rover contributed to the rapid growth of the gig economy.
But, skilled white collar workers have long contributed to the gig economy as well. Freelancers, independent contractors, and project-based hires have always been an important part of the workforce. As the internet and digital tech became more prevalent, it became easier for more people to leave the 9-to-5 workforce and join the gig economy. The rapid switch to remote work during the pandemic supported and accelerated this trend.
As Suresh Iyer points out in a piece at LinkedIn, gig work is especially suited to those in the engineering and IT fields. Hiring on a contract or project basis has benefits for both employees and employers. Workers can choose jobs that most interest them and that are best suited to their skill sets, which results in higher job satisfaction, better performance, and better quality of work. It also allows workers to set their own schedules and achieve a better work/life balance.
There are substantial benefits to the gig economy for employers as well. First, hiring contract workers means that they can easily adjust staffing levels to their current project loads. As well, because contract workers are often situated remotely, they don’t have the same overhead costs as full-time on-site employees. In addition to these cost-savings benefits, gig workers are often highly skilled, since those with established skills and experience have the most success navigating the gig economy.
Employing a highly-skilled and high-performing workforce at a lower cost is a no-brainer for business. As both businesses and workers progressively embrace the gig economy, gig work will become increasingly prevalent. Iyer provides stats showing that, currently, 1 in 3 engineering jobs are within the gig economy and that number is expected to double within the next five years.
Establishing Your Qualifications, Credentials, and Licenses
Obviously, the first step to getting hired as a contract worker is to make sure that you have the required qualifications and credentials. Additional certifications can serve to demonstrate your expertise and improve your chances of getting hired.
For the best opportunities, engineers should be licensed. As the National Society of Professional Engineers points out, licensure is almost a necessity for consulting engineers since it’s a legal requirement for those who are in charge of work. But, also, licensure ensures those who hire you that you’re a professional who will provide quality work.
As explained in one of our recent blog pieces, licensure can be obtained when an engineer completes the following steps:
- Graduating from an ABET-accredited engineering program;
- Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam;
- Working as an engineer for four years under the supervision of a Professional Engineer(s); and
- Passing the Professional Engineer exam.
If you’re too early in your career to be licensed, successful completion of the FE exam will demonstrate your commitment to growth and professionalism. And, at all levels of an engineer’s career, additional certifications demonstrate your willingness to acquire new knowledge and skills, and add value to your worth as an employee.
For tech workers, entry into the gig economy can be a lot easier. While a post-secondary degree can be helpful, most recruiters and hiring managers focus on certifications when reviewing resumes. Certifications demonstrate not only that you have the skills required for the position but that you are eager to acquire new knowledge. There are several well-regarded certifications available for every level of IT expertise, from absolute beginner to expert.
As an alternative to degrees and/or certifications, bootcamp attendance can document your expertise and demonstrate your commitment to acquiring new skills. Bootcamps are intensive, short-term training programs for people with no or little experience in the tech industry. They are a terrific way to add value to your resume and get you noticed by recruiters and hiring managers.
Establishing Your Business
Contract work isn’t just a job – it’s a business. As pointed out in a blog at Indeed, “Contract engineers usually seek out their own clients, broker contracts and perform the work indicated in that contract agreement. They are also usually responsible for managing their own accounts, including invoicing, purchasing and tax preparation.”
Also, it’s important to remember that since contract workers usually aren’t eligible for benefits, you’ll need to have a solid plan in place for managing your own health insurance, 401k contributions, and time off/vacation pay, as well as planning for possible parental leave and possible long-term illness or disability.
If you don’t have a basic knowledge of business management, you might want to connect with a team of professional services for guidance, including a lawyer, an accountant, and an insurance agent.
Start by creating a bank account that you will use solely for business transactions.
Many jurisdictions have laws around creating a business, including registering your business name and/or obtaining a business license. Check with your local municipality or a lawyer for details.
While insurance is a good idea for anyone working independently, liability insurance is especially important for engineers since liability issues are prevalent in that sector. An insurance agent can offer advice on which types of insurance are best for you.
Developing Marketing Strategies
Well-developed marketing strategies and a strong personal brand will give you an edge when looking for clients. An online presence, including either your own website or an optimized profile on LinkedIn is essential. These tools will allow you to showcase your skills and knowledge, and provide a place for clients to view your resume and portfolio.
Updating Your Resume
Resume standards and formats change frequently. Whether you’re just starting your professional career or you’re an industry veteran, your resume could probably use some polishing. We have a comprehensive blog with detailed tips but in brief:
- Stick to established standard formats;
- Be concise;
- Use a resume service or an AI tool to optimize your document;
- Use active, quantitative language;
- Don’t include the phrase, “References available upon request;”
- Don’t double space after periods; and
- List your soft skills.
Creating Your Portfolio
A career portfolio can help companies gauge your skills. It’s especially valuable for those who are just starting their careers and for those who have held many varied roles as a contract employee.
A digital portfolio can include textual information, graphics, and video. As we outlined in a past blog, a well-developed portfolio includes:
- A bio page that summarizes your strengths, education, certifications, and awards/recognitions;
- A resume that focuses on your relevant skills, knowledge, and experience;
- Detailed information about related education, internships, and projects;
- References or testimonials;
- Evidence of technical skills, such as models or prototypes; and
- Evidence of your soft skills, such as a successful team-work project. or examples of problem solving in completed projects.
For projects, make sure that you include your initial objectives, steps taken to complete the project, and the final results.
Unemployment rates in both the engineering and tech sectors remain low and companies are struggling to fill roles. The job market is scorching hot and it shouldn’t be difficult to find clients with projects that appeal to you.
As with any job, there are a number of different ways to find contract roles in the engineering and tech sectors, including:
- Networking by joining professional organizations, attending job fairs, being active in professional social media groups, and keeping in touch with instructors, classmates, and past coworkers;
- Checking career sites and job boards;
- Keeping your LinkedIn profile optimized with your settings showing that you’re open to new opportunities; and
- Working with a recruitment agency that specializes in the engineering and IT fields.
In today’s hot job market, you should have no shortage of positions to choose from. However, working with a recruitment agency can provide a number of other benefits in addition to the ease of securing attractive positions. A recruitment firm can handle the payrolling/taxes for you as a W2, offer you access to terrific contract opportunities that aren’t publicly posted, provide insider information/tips for a successful interview process, and continuously search on your behalf for your next project, so that you can seamlessly transition between roles.
Building Your Reputation
As you successfully complete projects, your work will speak for itself. Satisfied clients may reach out to you for help on future projects or may refer you to others. Make sure to keep your resume, portfolio, and online presence updated and include testimonials where appropriate.
As well, to keep current and show your commitment to your profession, pursue opportunities for professional development and learning. New certifications can help to enhance your reputation as a contract worker who is committed to excellence.
The gig economy is full of opportunities and contract work is attractive for many reasons. That said, contract work requires a certain amount of business acumen. While it may seem like an exciting career change, make sure to consider all the benefits and potential challenges of gig work before diving in.