8 Good Reasons to Become a Contractor

By Andrea Karim on 22 May 2007 (Updated 7 July 2009) 21 comments

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.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for re-inforcing why I'm happy being a contractor. I currently work at Capital One (don't swat me, since I think you're the one who wrote the break-up letter to them on here not so long ago!), but I'm there as a contractor and everything you listed here applies to my situation. Yes, there are times I wish I could be in on some of the meetings, and I don't get overtime, but everything else is what I preach about being good as a contractor. It's not so easy to explain to full-time employees why I think my position is a good one, but now I can show them this. Thanks!

P.S. - I laughed like crazy at your "Dear Capital One" blog, and shared it with some co-workers, who also found it terrific!

Andrea Karim's picture

After all, I work for the Evil Empire right now. :)

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments! Much appreciated.

Guest's picture
dan

I have been an FTE once for 2.5 years, and I have been a contractor for the other 16 years of my career, I have so much more fun as a contractor. Although I have to admit that it is not for everyone, there is a lot of uncertanty in the process. People have to decide if it will work for them.

Guest's picture
Guest

Re: It's all about the hours - if you're a contractor who's experiencing bosses who begin to demand more than the exact requirements of your contract I say you should learn to say "I would be very happy to re-negotiate my contract so that you choose WHEN I work. I would be happy with a 15% premium for that demand, but I'll leave the ball in your court. Until then: stick to the agreement please!"

They cannot have it both ways, surely. Either you're an employee who's part of the family who gives and takes - we demand your hours but you get some level of job security, let's hug now - or you're explicitly kept at arm's length as an outsider expected to perform very explicit tasks under very explicit conditions.

(Speaking as an employee with family to feed on one income [read: craves security]).

Guest's picture
Guest

Thanks for your article on this topic, as I am about to venture into the contracting world, but I really didn't know that much about it. Thanks again, as this really helps reinforce my decision to go the contracting route!

Guest's picture
Natacha

I absolutely need your advises as soon as possible!

The story is that I will be employed by Microsoft (in Ireland) as a contractor in 5 days time now and the recruitment agency which found me the job didn't tell me more about what is required to be a contractor. I mean that I have no idea about the formalities I have to fill in and how long it takes to get them, the agency just advised me to schedule an appointment with an accountant.

So if you could help me solve out my situation and tell me more about the steps to follow to become a contractor I would be very grateful!

Cheers,
Natacha

Andrea Karim's picture

Hi, Natacha,

I'm assuming that you are going to be working as an independent contractor? Unfortunately, there's not much advice that I can give you about what you need to do, because contracting for Microsoft in Ireland might be incredibly different than doing it here. Also, I've never worked as an independent contractor. Contact the agency again and ask them to verify what you need to do. If you need to meet with an accountant, do it right away. Sure the agency that set you up has more information for you?

Guest's picture
Dee

I am an independent trainer and have been for the past few years. I teach computer and professional development courses...and I absolutely love it!

I get to meet and interact with so many new people, my schedule is flexible, my office is downstairs in my home, and I'm out at the clients location facilitating classes about 3 days out of the week.

Guest's picture
Kimosabe

Andrea,

Do you have any pointers for getting started on finding projects/contracts to work on, without incurring expenses such as paying $5,000 to join a project-to-talent matching program?

I have been working for a year as a W2 employee under a company that serves as an "intermediary" to take care of the payroll work for the major corporation where I work at on a daily basis. My contract will end in the second half of 2008 and need to look at alternatives.

I am in the systems engineering services field in the wireless communications industry; both commercial and government/public safety.

Thanks,
K

Guest's picture
DC

As a former freelancer and now full-time employee (although working remotely from home office) was interested to read your article. Much of what you discuss also applies to my past and present situations.

I'm unfamiliar with "contracting" through agencies, though. Are these companies specific to engineering, etc., or do they exist for other fields, too?

Thanks for the good read!

D.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, guys, sorry to be so late in responding to your questions. I hadn't been blogging for a while and didn't see these comments.

Kimbosabe (nice moniker!) - I have never paid an intermediary company to find me work, per se. Now, you can argue that I DO pay them, in the sense that they take a hefty chunk of change off the top of the hourly rate that I get paid. For instance, if I work at Microsoft and get paid $40 an hour, I can guarantee that the agency is getting paid $55 and they take $15 for every hour I work before paying me. But I don't incur expenses, and I have never paid anyone upfront costs for finding me work.

It's possible that some areas of the country are less prone to using contractors that are hired through an agency. Or maybe it's industry-specific. The reason that it is so popular where I live (Seattle) is that large companies, like Microsoft and Boeing, are loathe to hire people in a permanent basis for projects that aren't terribly long-term. Microsoft is notorious for this, so much so that they got slapped with a lawsuit a few years ago for only hiring contractors (the result of this is that, as a certain category of contractor, you can only work for MS for a year, and then must take a 100 day break before starting another contract with them). They do this to avoid paying health care costs, as the benefits at Microsoft are very good and extremely expensive.

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the way these things work in other areas of the US - for instance, when I lived in Manhattan, I was hired for two permanent jobs through an agency (they got a finder's fee for vetting me as a candidate), but I never heard of contracting work to be had there.

I'm going to be investigating the idea more as I start up my own business, so I'll be writing about this topic again soon.

Guest's picture
Dianna

i'm curious to know what agencies you've worked for. i've worked for temp agencies in the past when i was between things, but i never got the indication that they did anything more high-level than secretarial work. are they national agencies or local seattle ones?

Andrea Karim's picture

Volt is a national recruiting agency that I have worked for, but it's only in the Seattle area that I have found them to specialize in high tech recruitment. In other areas, they trend towards more blue collar and skilled labor jobs. I honestly can't speak to the rest of the country. What area are you in?

Guest's picture
Guest

hey can you tell me more about contracting? like are there diffrent types and what types of work you do? im only 16 but i got my GED and i want to go to college and ive been reading up on ccontracting but i dont know what i would have to do in school to do what i want to do.. i love computers so i kind of wanted to be in that field... i live in the seattle area... soo what is there to do around here to learn more?? please let me know you can e mail me at liljamezy@gmail.com thanks soo much

Andrea Karim's picture

You'll need a college degree. Unless you have years of experience in computer programming or are some kind of math genius, companies won't even look at you unless you have a degree.

Get a college degree in whatever area you enjoy most. There are tons of community colleges in the Seattle area, so I'd recommend starting at one of those. If you are interested in video games, Seattle has a plethora of companies that create, test, and market video games. Keep an eye out on Craigslist for weekend testing gigs - you can get paid, or at least fed, for spending a few hours at a video game manufacturer hq, providing feedback on new games. If you become a regular weekend tester, you can get your name out there and start looking for internships.

Another good way to prove to employers that you are passionate about a subject is to start a blog on that topic.

Guest's picture
NOMAN KHAN

Aslamoalikum

Good Day I hope all doing fine... first of all I am very happy to see swat topic.. but now days the swat condition is so bad, I am basically from nowshara but we spent 14 year in malank agency its mean my childhood all in there, for that reason I like swat aria and swat people very much there people is very hospitable and respectable ,,but now I am out of country in still uae
,

thanks and best regards

Noman Khan

sharjah uae

Guest's picture
Guest

"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."

I'm interested in learning more about contracting myself out instead of going through an agency. Any thoughts on the best way to go about this?

Guest's picture
Hozefa

Hi,

I liked the article a lot and in fact I m more inspired by it and take a contract job or freelance.

I would really like to know the cons of contract job too.

Guest's picture

The whole time I'm reading the article I'm thinking its about a man with a pickup-truck working on houses. That's what "contractor" has always meant to me. lol

Guest's picture
Guest

You have only mentioned the positive aspects of being a contractor. I am a contractor myself, and my resume, like yours, has many 6 months to 1 year gigs. The downside is, you never know when you your client is not gonna need you anymore.I am used to feeling insecure in my job already. But I would say the instability is the worst aspect of being a contractor.

Guest's picture
Vince

I work in IT as an Network Engineer and was scared at first when taking a contract role that happens to be with a big IT company...but after getting over being unsure I realized that as an employee I am no more job secure than as a contractor but as a contractor I make more money (no salary). With the field I am in.....it is I who determines how good I am, and that will always get me a job or contract position. I hate office politics and am too keen not to notice it. I would rather do my job, finish a project...gain heck of more experience and leave just when I start disliking it.