A guest post by John Hewitt
What is contracting?
Everyone knows what a regular job is. You show up every day (or telecommute if you are lucky) and you earn a regular paycheck. You work for the same company for years, or at least you expect to, and you get benefits such as paid holidays, vacations, retirement plans and even stock options if the company is particularly generous. Most writers also know what freelancing is. Freelancing is when you work independently for a number of clients. Most freelancing gigs are small or medium projects. You write an article, a blog post, a press release, a brochure, a white paper or whatever the client wants. Some projects are larger, such as a book. Some clients come to you again and again and form relationships. On the whole though, you are hired to create something specific. You work for multiple clients and in most cases you run your own small business, managing your own accounts and paying your own way.
Contracting is a combination of these two worlds. As a contractor, you are not a regular employee. Like an employee, you are expected to show up every day (or telecommute if you are lucky) and you earn a regular paycheck. Unlike an employee, you do not expect to work for the same company for very long. Most contracts last a year at most, while some last only a month or two. While it is possible to get some benefits (I’ll go into that later) you are probably just working for an hourly fee. While you are on that contract, however, you are expected to spend your time working for that company alone. You might take a small freelance project on the side, but for the length of the contract, you are expected to devote your regular work day to the company you work at.
Who hires contractors to write for them?
Companies hire contractors for one of two reasons. They either have a specific finite project in mind or they have more work than their current staff can handle but they do not want to commit to hiring a regular employee. The practice of hiring contractors is especially prevalent in the technical writing field. Many companies hire technical writers to document a current or soon to be released product. After that project is finished, they feel they no longer need the writer so they end the contract. It is less messy than hiring a full time writer and then laying them off because you lack new projects for them. Marketing writers and grant writers also work on contract in some cases and virtually all professional writing fields use contractors to some extent, but technical writing is the dominant field for writing contractors.
In the more literal sense though, most writing contractors are hired by contract agencies. These agencies act as middlemen between contractors and clients. There are thousands of contract agencies, but some major agencies are Yoh, Manpower, and Spherion. The contract agency screens candidates and recommends the best possible matches in the same way that employment agencies do. In most cases you will interview with both the agency and the employer in order to get the job. This sounds daunting, but because the position is contract rather than regular employment, some interviews are much less formal. I have been hired in a single day, over the phone, more than once.
Once you are hired, you actually work for the agency. Your paycheck, as well as any benefits you might have negotiated, comes from the agency and not the client. It is the agency that is responsible for billing the client for your services. For the most part, agencies don’t provide benefits such as holidays and insurance, but it depends on the agency. As the practice of contracting has grown, many of the larger agencies have expanded the benefits they offer, but benefits are still the exception rather than the rule.
It is also possible to work directly for a company as a contractor. In this case, you bill the client directly in much the same way that a freelancer would. The benefit of this is that you generally make more money, but the downside is that you must cover all of your own expenses including social security and tax payments.
Contracting is not for everyone. You don’t have as much security as a regular job, and you don’t have the freedom and options of a freelancer. Contracting can be highly lucrative though. In most cases you are paid more than a regular employee and you can count on that paycheck being there for the length of the contract. For me, contracting was not a deliberate decision. As a technical writer, I found that contract positions were more plentiful than regular positions, and that freelance technical writing clients were hard for me to find. Contracting was where the work was, so I kept contracting.
Another advantage to contracting is that it allows you to work for a company without feeling as if the success or failure of that company is an important issue to you. I have worked as a regular employee before and have been frustrated by poor management and bad corporate decisions. As one employer slowly ground itself into the ground, it became a weekly contest to predict which benefit would be cut next. As a contractor though, it is only your job to deliver the best possible work to your client. How they run their business is not your concern. This can be a comforting thought.
There are plenty of issues to discuss about the world of contracting, but I hope this has given you a general idea of what contracting is and whether or not you would like to try it.
John Hewitt is a technical writer who has worked as a contractor for several major tech companies including IBM, Motorola, and Intel. John also runs poewar.com, a web site for writers. He has just launched a new job center for writers at jobs.poewar.com.