Managing IT contractors presents unique challenges

Hiring contract tech workers is a quick, easy way to staff up a project or offload mundane tasks -- but managing them can be ticklish.

As companies ramp up projects postponed by the recession and attend to delayed maintenance, they're beginning to fill in the IT ranks -- with full-time staffers, to be sure, but also with a breed of worker that once lurked at the edges of the organization: the IT contractor.

Proponents say hiring contract IT workers -- those engaged on a temporary basis for either in-house or remote work -- allows companies large and small to access skills that current staffers don't have, quickly round out project teams without an onerous hiring process, and offload routine tasks to low-cost labor.

Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis, says companies view contract labor as a smart way to find the exact skill set they need for as long as they need it. "Employers are relying on contractors in every aspect of IT," he reports, "from network engineers to Web developers to call center professionals and business analysts."

Indeed, spending in the IT contract labor market revived in mid-2010 and showed a strong uptick in 2011, according to a recent IDC report. While the eurozone crisis slowed that growth in 2012, IDC predicts spending will continue to rise.

As sensible as the use of contract labor can be, it presents IT with a ticklish management challenge: To the untrained eye, contractors may walk, talk and code like the full-timers they often work beside, but they are not, in fact, company employees.

And that makes a difference -- or it should -- when it comes to how they're managed. Employment experts point out that there are myriad opinions about where the boundaries should be drawn between contractors and employees. But smart IT leaders should spend time finding the balance that works best for their team.

How do you get the most from your IT contractors and do right by them in the process? Here's some advice from IT managers experienced in getting stellar results from a temporary workforce.

When and Why to Use Contractors

At Vanguard Health Systems in Nashville, the use of contractors follows no hard-and-fast rule. "It's situational," says Scott Blanchette, senior vice president and CIO. "We have some [contractors] we acquire because of a specific skill or talent, and there are others we acquire because we simply don't have the labor needed to get critical initiatives done in a timely manner."

WellPoint, an Indianapolis-based healthcare company, also hires contractors to fill a need for specific skills or to quickly staff up in areas it wants to expand into, says Andrew J. Lang, CIO and senior vice president. In such scenarios, hiring contractors may be "a bridging strategy," where people are brought in under contract-to-hire arrangements, he says.

WellPoint also employs a fairly large group of contractors as "variable-demand resources," says Lang, explaining that the size of this group is increased or decreased "based on project work." It also hires contractors to handle day-to-day IT tasks instead of assigning such duties to higher paid employees.

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