Even for organizations with a stellar full-time IT staff, situations often arise where temporary outside help is needed. A big Web project might demand a few extra programmers to meet a tough deadline, for example, or a rollout of tools to support a sales force bent on capturing a broader market may require expertise not available in-house.
That's when contractors come in. With job losses and uncertain economic times the new norm, independent contractors are on the rise in the U.S. In 2009, the number of U.S. freelancers in all fields stood at 12 million, according to market research firm IDC. That number is expected to reach 14 million by 2015.
At the same time, companies, including those in IT, are facing new challenges employing independent workers due to federal and state initiatives enacted over the past few years that aggressively pursue "worker misclassification." In the government's eyes, organizations that employ contract workers on a long-term and full-time basis without paying benefits or taxes should, in fact, be classifying those workers as employees -- with all the privileges that status entails.
The result? "Companies are really shying away from the independents," says Cynthia Moore, co-founder of VMS Professionals, an association that discusses best practices for hiring and managing contract workers. Businesses, especially large, conservative enterprises, are now erring on the side of caution and avoiding independent contract hires even for short-term work -- "which is a shame because there are a lot more independents out there who are qualified," she says.
These factors are opening up a highly skilled and work-hungry IT talent pool for small and midsize businesses that need outside contractors on a short-term basis or seek to test talent before they hire full-time.
One obvious way to get short-term help is to contract with a large IT staffing agency, as some companies, particularly larger organizations, do. But it's entirely possible to hire talented contractors on your own. A host of websites help these pros advertise their services, secure paying work and develop ongoing relationships with clients. For employers and business owners, these sites can be excellent sources of high-quality IT talent if you know how and where to look -- and if you're willing to pay fairly for the talent you seek.
While some employers use freelance sites to get rock-bottom hourly rates from contractors, that practice can burn you, says Mike Cline, CEO of Tech Guys Who Get Marketing, an IT firm that regularly employs freelance tech contractors through online resources. "You always get what you pay for. That is so often overlooked when employers are looking to hire," he says.
If you have a clear definition of the skills and knowledge you need and a willingness to pay for top talent, sites that pool freelance talent can help you complete key projects on deadline and on budget. The following are the best resources on the market for finding and recruiting high-quality IT contractors, according to Cline and other managers who use them regularly.
When you're looking for a large pool of talent with a varied skill set, few sites feature more breadth than oDesk. While the site's workforce-for-hire comprises everything from market researchers to accountants, many of its contractors specialize in technical skills including software and Web development, network and systems administration and tech support.
Employers post a job on oDesk's boards, detailing the scope of work and the level of pay. Freelancers who have signed up with oDesk then apply for the job, much as they would on any other job site. The employer sifts through the applications, chooses one and hires the worker through the oDesk interface, allowing the contractor to get started immediately, if need be. The employer pays oDesk, which pays the worker, taking a 10% cut of the contractor's wages.
Both employers and contractors receive ratings that help all parties determine how much experience they have and how well they work, making it much easier to weed out subpar workers and ornery clients. Contractors must complete skill tests to prove their competency in key subject matter -- anything from PHP5 to Photoshop, HTML or MySQL -- if an employer requires it.
While employers can pay contractors per project or hourly, hourly work is where oDesk really shines. The site uses a Work Diary to track and record exactly what a contractor is working on. The contractor must log in before he or she works on the project, and the record is automatically sent to the employer when the contractor logs out -- ensuring that contractors aren't billing you for time spent Web surfing or chatting with friends.
Joining oDesk, posting jobs and conducting interviews is free for employers; it's also free for contractors to sign up with the service, post profiles and apply for jobs. For projects that meet certain conditions including using the Work Diary software, oDesk offers a work guarantee for employers as well as a payment guarantee for workers.