How contracting can recharge your IT career

Even though Newsweek declared the recession over last July, tens of thousands of IT professionals are still out of work . They're among the 14.9 million people now unemployed, of which the number of long-term unemployed -- those jobless for over 27 weeks -- was 6.1 million in February.

The good news: The unemployment rate dropped to 9.7% in January, down from 10%, and stayed at that level for February . But that's little comfort to technology workers who are pounding the pavement looking for work.

Technology workers, especially older professionals, are increasingly re-evaluating their options. They're wondering if they should beef up their skills, jump to a new specialty or even leave IT altogether. And in all of those cases, they're weighing the risk of taking on debt to finance continuing education versus plowing ahead with their current skill sets.

But there is another option that's often overlooked: IT contracting. It's a solid alternative to permanent positions that can make other choices, such as continuing education, financially feasible.

You've heard all the arguments about why IT professionals should avoid contracting engagements: They're not stable. They make you look like a job-hopper. You'll have to look for another new job in six months. The list is long. But it's also flawed, especially in today's environment.

History tells us that contract positions will be among the first to see growth as the country continues its recovery. And that's exactly what we're seeing. Companies are turning to consultants to fill the gap left by staff reductions over the past two years.

I'm not suggesting that you abandon your search for the perfect full-time position. What I am suggesting is that contracting can be an excellent way to start working now, while you continue your hunt.

Here are some of the best reasons to seriously consider contracting while you look for a full-time gig.

It can improve your marketability. Contractors have the opportunity to pick and choose their assignments. This gives them the freedom to gain experience with a variety of new types of hardware, software, technologies and businesses. Contracting positions can provide a better opportunity to stay current with the latest technology than permanent slots. When one assignment ends, a new one can begin, exposing you to another company, another business vertical, another IT world. For instance, many companies upgrade their technology every three to five years. When they do, they typically turn to contractors to support the implementation. This beefs up your experience and your r?sum?, making you a more formidable competitor in the dog-eat-dog job marketplace.

It can open doors to a permanent position. Contracting engagements can also be a "try before you buy" opportunity for you and the employer. Many companies offer contract employees full-time positions at the end of their assignments. And it's not uncommon for the permanent position offered to be something different from the contracting role, if the company feels it's a better fit for you. Essentially, a contracting position can be a foot in the door. You improve your chances of becoming a permanent employee by making the most out of the time you're with the company. Show up early, work hard, and don't leave until the task is done. Contracting lets you "test-drive" the company culture to see if it's a fit for you as well. Expose yourself to a range of areas in the business to meet managers and employees beyond those you work with daily.

It offers a higher earning potential. Contractors have the unique ability to negotiate each engagement individually based on the project and their skill level. In many cases, this allows good consultants to earn a significantly higher rate than a permanent job would allow, because they're in the position to tell a company how much they're worth. Every IT position has a different range. For an entry-level IT help desk position, you can earn between $20 and $28 per hour. A standard midlevel developer can make anywhere from $40 to $80 per hour. At the upper end of the spectrum, a skilled developer can hit $100 per hour. One caveat: Remember that you'll have to budget for insurance payments, taxes, vacation time and retirement contributions when calculating your true take-home pay.

Flexible work schedules. On average, a permanent IT professional spends one to three years with an employer. With contractors, every case is unique. While most engagements last six to 12 months, many contractors enjoy one-to-three-year tenures that rival permanent positions. A highly specialized project expert can spend decades as a contracted employee. In rare situations, contractor positions are actually more stable than their full-time counterparts. In some cases, it is easier, financially, for a company to keep a contractor on a job than a full-time employee. If you're concerned that having a series of short-term engagements on your r?sum? makes you look like a job-hopper, simply ask your staffing agency to look for longer-term positions for you. In the end, though, much depends on the needs of local employers in your market.

Where do you begin? Start with a reputable staffing agency. They follow the job market, have extensive knowledge about trends in numerous professions, and can provide you great exposure through their networks of employer relationships. A good staffing agency can quickly find you suitable placements for short-term assignments.

They will guide you through the contracting experience, from finding a position that's right for you, to getting you the experience you want, to pushing for the salary you deserve. How do you know if the agency is reputable? There's one big indicator: Do they want to meet you in person? A good agency will want to meet you, build a relationship, and get to know your likes and dislikes.

A good agency will also have extensive information about its proposed companies, including the employer's history with past contractors. And it can negotiate the highest possible salary for you, because it will have a great sense of what you're worth and what the market will bear.

Once you've found a contracting position, some agencies offer health care benefits, insurance, and contributory retirement plans. It's as close as you can get to a full-time position.

If you're unemployed, don't overlook the opportunities IT contracting holds. You owe it to yourself to explore the options. Who knows? Your contracting experience could be the first step toward a fantastic full-time career.

Dan Cobb is vice president, enterprise solutions, at Yoh, a leading provider of high-impact talent and outsourcing services and a unit of Day & Zimmermann. For more information, please visitwww.yoh.comor .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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