Contract work has always been a good way to advance your career, try a new field or bridge the gap between permanent positions. That’s not likely to change, as nearly 17 million Americans work through staffing agencies every year.
But contractors’ priorities may be changing. While permanent employment remains a top goal for many, experienced recruiters are seeing a new trend: more people choosing contracting as their preferred career path.
This is especially true in industries where work is project-based, like engineering, finance, healthcare, clinical research and technology.
Which factors should you consider when considering if contracting is the career path for you?
We spoke with Aerotek recruiting managers Dedra Pritchard, who focuses on healthcare and sciences, and Jake Plegge, who specializes in the energy and engineering sectors, to learn what’s behind the shift in contract work.
Plegge and Pritchard agree on the main reason more people are choosing the contract route: the ability to work on varied, interesting and challenging projects.
“What really gets engineers and other technical professionals excited is the chance to work on the latest and greatest technology,” says Plegge. “That’s been the big driver behind more people going into contracting — it’s about opportunity.”
Pritchard sees the same motivation with clinical researchers who are looking to advance their careers and gain specialized skills. In the end, it’s about being in control.
“I work with people who’ve been contracting for years, and they’ve positioned themselves to only take on the work that interests them,” says Pritchard. “If you're in a permanent position, you have to work on whatever is in your company's pipeline. You don't have the same level of choice or ownership.”
Both recruiters say that in the fields they specialize in, the pay for contract workers is higher (you do have to consider benefits — more on that below). You also get paid for the actual hours you’re on the job.
“Because contractors work on an hourly basis versus a salary basis, you get paid for the hours you work,” says Pritchard. “In the clinical research industry, there's a lot of travel hours that are paid, which is particularly beneficial and attractive to contractors.”
Pritchard also points out that, in healthcare and clinical research, contracting can add to job security.
“In certain fields, contractors have the ability to take on multiple projects at one time. If one falls through, they have a backup project in place, which isn’t the case when you lose a permanent job.”
Flexibility is another reason why more people are choosing contracting or leaving full-time positions for contract work. In some cases, that flexibility goes beyond the freedom to take time off between jobs.
“Flexible work schedules are a big draw for a lot of people,” says Plegge, “and contractors may be able to negotiate an arrangement that’s not available to permanent employees, like a four-day, 40-hour work week.”
If you’re thinking about contracting as a career path, what personal and professional strengths do you need — or need to develop?
It starts with confidence.
“The best career contract professionals are confident in their skills and work abilities,” says Pritchard. “They’re comfortable marketing their services to multiple companies.”
Another important trait is adaptability, especially regarding work relationships. In a permanent position, you could have 2–3 bosses in 20 years. As a contractor, you might work with six different supervisors in three years. To succeed, you’ll need to not only adapt to that situation but to enjoy the challenge and variety it presents.
Finally, as a career contractor, your job performance is critical — as much or more so than a permanent employee.
“When you’re brought in for a specific project or function, there’s a spotlight on you,” says Plegge. “Sometimes people can hide in permanent positions, but career contractors can’t. They want to leave each job on great terms and with strong recommendations.”
Career contractors have a different relationship with recruiters than do contractors who are looking for a permanent position.
“When we work with a career contractor, we never stop looking for their next job,” says Plegge. “We’re always in recruitment mode, we know their strengths and what they’re looking for.”
And because career contractors are in charge of their professional trajectory, recruiters need to understand their long-term goals.
“I'm not looking just to get them one contract, I'm looking to keep them employed for years to come,” says Pritchard. “I keep in touch throughout the contract to make sure that it's going well. It's like a good marriage.”
If you’re considering contracting long-term, factor in all the variables that come with the territory.
For example, many of these positions involve regular travel or temporary relocation. Does that fit your lifestyle? Most reputable staffing agencies (including Aerotek) offer health insurance, but it’s unlikely to be a premium insurance plan and may be costlier than what some traditional employers offer. If you seek health insurance through your staffing partner, you should factor any cost difference into your compensation.
With more people using contracting as a path to challenging, self-driven careers, you should seek firsthand perspective.“Talk to people in your field who’ve made the switch,” says Pritchard. “Get unbiased opinions. The more informed your decision is, the more successful you’ll be.”