8 Good Reasons to Become a Contractor
Contracting: it ain't your grandpa's job. No, really.
There was a time, not that long ago, in which Americans would graduate from college, get a job, and stick with that job until retirement. As we all know, those days are long gone. But I still know a fair number of people who stick it out in boring, dead-end jobs because they don't want the change (or, of course, some people simply can't afford to leave their job for whatever reason).
For those of us who can risk a little more, though, well, why shouldn't we leave crappy jobs behind? Now, I'm not one to turn down an excellent, well-paying permanent position with a good company. In my profession (and geographic area), it much easier to find contract work than a full-time position. And while I used to be wary of being a paid-by-the-hour worker, I'm coming to appreciate the charms of time cards.
I'll admit that sometimes, I get weirded out by how many jobs I've had. My resume grows by leaps and bounds, and of course, my parents would rather I find a nice job and settle down. But I find it hard to do so, and here's why.
Big companies, like Microsoft, get around all kinds of pesky "workers' rights" laws by not actually hiring nearly as many people as they need. They'd rather pay another company to hire you, and then pay them a ridiculous hourly rate for your services and skills. Supposedly, this still saves them money in the long run.
I've worked a lot of contracts around in the Seattle area, and at least for now, I think it might be the best way to work. Below are some of my reasons for choosing contract work.
It's all about the hours, so schedules are more flexible. Now, this isn't always the case. A couple of contracts ago, I had a boss that threw a fit if any of her contractors took more than an hour for lunch. Never mind that you can only bill for the hours that you were working - she just wanted to be sure she had her eye on you at all times. But when you land an easy-going boss (and this depends largely on your industry) you get the pleasure of more or less deciding when you want to work.
For instance, yesterday, I woke up with a splitting headache. I was lying around with an ice pack on my forehead and the ibuprofen nearby, but I was comfortable in knowing that I didn't have to say anything to my boss, because all he expects from me is 8 hours a day - he doesn't care WHICH eight hours I work. People who need to take their kids to the doctors don't have to call in to explain. We could work from 3PM to 12AM every day, and our boss would be satisfied. It's about getting the work done.
You are spared the politics. Not always. But I find it remarkably easy to remain completely and utterly apathetic when it comes to office drama when I am working as a contractor. Person A not getting along with Person B? Not my problem. Back-stabbing in the editorial department? Like I care. People under insane pressure to be finished with this project? Sure, I'll put in my overtime, but I'm not going to get emotionally involved or freak out.
This isn't to say that I don't want my project to succeed, because of course I do, but I'll be gone in six months, so I refuse to get bogged down in personality conflicts and social drama. I'd like to make a good impression, and leave with everyone knowing that I had nothing bad to say about anyone. The lack of stress can be amazing; I actually think I have fewer wrinkles now than I did when I first started working here.
You don't get called to as many meetings. I don't, anyway. Project managers do. No one cares what writers think. This all depends on your level of importance: I'm currently a well-compensated peon. But there are people who contract as project managers or business development managers, and I'm sure they spend all day in meetings. But a lot of contractors simply aren't considered important enough to include on decision and policy meetings - fine with me. I don't intend to make my career at this place, so they can decide whatever they want without me around.
You can still get benefits if you want. I need really good health insurance coverage, other people don't. The company that I actually work for, who hires me out to Microsoft and other large corporations, offers decent benefits packages. I get paid vacation, life insurance, and vision, dental, and health. Now, I could work as a true contractor, hiring myself out as part of my own business, and then I could charge an INSANE amount of money per hour to make up for the lack of benefits. I'll write more about this later.
Overtime, baby. Man, oh, man, do I love earning time and a half for twenty hours a week. If you are lucky enough to land on a team that desperately needs you to work overtime, take advantage of it. If Microsoft were to hire me to a permanent position (unlikely), I'd still have to work 70 hours a week, for less money. In fact, my current team has at least four former full-time employees who chose to become contractors because their family lives were falling apart as they struggled to balance 80-hour work weeks with home life. Another contractor, who is in her seventies, retired from Microsoft, but got bored sitting at home. She's perfectly happy to work as a bug cruncher for a smart hourly wage.
Permanent isn't. As we all know, there is no predictability in today's market. Downsizing, whatever. I'd rather have a set end date and know when my work is going to end.
Experience! I like having a new job every few months. I get to learn new tools, meet new people, and just as I start to get bored, I get to start all over again. It builds up my resume and makes me a more desirable contractor for the next job. Also, it's kind of nice to know all the different big companies in the area. Plus, you don't always have to do the same job. I can work as a writer, or do page layout, or do XML work - whatever suits my fancy.
People! While I try not to socialize too much at work, I have made some good friends at contract locations, and the friendships have remained even after I left. I'm not actually a very social person, so this is good for me - I'm forced to meet new people and develop the ability to work with different personality types. If you are a total recluse, though, this might not be good for you.
There are plenty of good reasons to get a full-time job, too. And contracting isn't always the best way to live. Sometimes, not being invited to meetings can bite, because decisions are made that can affect you and you have no say in them. At Microsoft, contractors are prohibited from playing on Microsoft sports teams (it's contractor apartheid!). And people can be occasionally snooty - your badge color indicates what kind of a contractor you are, and sometimes the full-timers feel holier-than-thou because you're just an "orange badge".
But for me, the perks far outweigh the pitfalls. If you enjoy moving around and gaining new experience, and hate office politics, contracting might be the way to go.