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   SEPTEMBER 2012     



career focus
Contract Engineering Jobs

By John R. Platt

"Career contractors." That's what Joseph Salvucci, owner and CEO of Peak Technical Staffing USA, calls many of the engineers who find work through his firm. These highly trained professionals aren't looking for full-time jobs that will last them 20 or 30 years. Instead, they're looking for contract work: short-term jobs anywhere from a few months to a couple of years that pay well, offer certain degrees of flexibility and give them a chance to practice their craft at a very high technical level.

"These career contractors move from one very interesting and amazing job to another interesting and amazing job," Salvucci says. "It's always a situation where things need to get done and they need to get done now." In the process, contract engineers can often be earning a premium of 10 to 15 percent above the market rate for permanent employees.

Contract workers usually have at least a few years or even decades of experience under their belt along with specializations in an industry or skill set. "We're trying to match specific skills to specific needs," says Jay Rogers, VP of recruiting at Randstad Engineering. And depending on the industry, the need for these skills is often quite high: "There's definitely a gap between supply and demand," he says.

Why Some Engineers Opt for Contract Assignments

Contractors don't always have the same mindset as the typical employee. "We did some research a few years ago and found that for about 75 percent of the American workforce, their main need is job security," Salvucci says. That's not the case for contract engineers, although their actual top priorities vary widely.

For some contract engineers, the prospect of earning higher incomes both in base rates and overtime drives their employment decisions. "I saw the rates my old employers were getting from their clients and I knew how much they were paying me," says IEEE member and software developer John Zukowski. "I wanted to get a bigger piece of the pie." He has now been contracting for the past six years.

Other contractors enjoy staying on the cutting edges of their industries, says Abhijeet Narvekar, co-founder of The FerVID Group, a Houston-based recruiting firm specializing in the oil and gas industry. The FerVID Group does not currently represent contract workers, but they just had a discussion with several contractors to learn more about their needs. He says contractors told them that some permanent jobs can lead to a stagnation of technical skills. "If you're a contractor, you could pick up a six-month contract and work in one technology, then you could take another contract which gives you exposure to a different technology. That way the contractors can really keep up with the fast-moving engineering world." This not only keeps their skills fresh, it also makes them more marketable and allows them to raise their rates even further.

For many entering contract work, the lure is the ability to be the solution. "When they can successfully solve a problem that other people maybe thought was unsolvable, that's a huge kick," Salvucci says. "They love solving problems. That's why engineers become engineers." Narvekar says many contractors enjoy the feeling of accomplishment they get from their work. "A contractor can say, my job is done, so now I can move on to something else."

For others, travel and personal growth are their biggest incentives. "I enjoy the challenges and diversity of contracting," says Ed Hipple, who has been contracting through Randstad since 2008. "I get to go from place to place, to meet different people and different cultures within the United States. I've had experiences from Kansas to Texas to George and in between." As much as he enjoys meeting new people, he says he also enjoys discovering new food: "I can tell you some of the best places to have barbeque west of Memphis."

Why Companies Opt for Contract Employees

Okay, those are some of the reasons why an engineer would want to become a contractor. What about the flip side of the equation?

For one thing, hiring contractors allows companies to manage their finances and adjust their workforce during times of boom or bust. "As a contract person, I am a benefit to a client," Hipple says. "Whether it's a six-month project or a two-year project, they are able to construct their forecasted expenditures and budget on a temporary asset and not have to worry about a long-term asset with 20-year health insurance and a retirement program."

For another, the rapid development of technology and the globalization of the world economy have made contracting an essential part of a company's employee mix, Salvucci says. "Engineering is becoming more specialized, and as it becomes more specialized you are less suited to be in a full-time position because your talent in that specialization is only needed on a temporary basis. Today, a company needs an electrical engineer with specific experience to suit a project's needs." Once that project is over, the need for the employee is often over as well, but this is also a benefit to the employees: it frees up contract engineers to take their skills elsewhere.

Contractors aren't the only ones who specialize. "Companies become experts in what they do," Rogers says. "You don't want me to go and fire up a nuclear power plant," he jokes. "Most of our engineering customers have HR departments, but they don't have a staff of people that can post jobs, screen candidates and do background checks." Companies like Randstad provide that service for them.

Another advantage is that contractors typically don't need much, if any, training before a job can begin. "The client expects a contractor to get started on day one," Narvekar says. "They are expecting a person to know the ins and outs of a particular technology. Once they find that person they're going to give them a good long-term six months, one year or longer contract to lock that person in."

Companies also tend to get much more work out of contractors than full-time employees and they get exactly what they pay for. "Contractors are 100 percent utilized while they're on the project," Salvucci says. By comparison, a "captive" or full-time employee might be used as little as 60 percent after holidays, sick days, training and other time off. "If contractors don't work for a couple of hours, they don't get paid."

High Pay, But for a Reason

It's that 100 percent utilization that leads to higher paychecks for contractors, who negotiate an hourly rate at the beginning of each job. "None of them get paid for holidays or vacations," Salvucci says. "That's prepaid in their rate."

Unlike full-time employees, contract engineers need to pay for their own insurance, 401(k) and other benefits. Both Peak and Randstad offer a la carte benefits, but only about half of their contractors take advantage of them, Salvucci says. "If they've been doing this for a while, contract engineers know they need to build this into their rate up front because it's going to be out of pocket," Rogers says.

Finding insurance can be a tough task when you work for yourself. Zukowksi says he expected to be able to get healthcare benefits through IEEE when he first started contracting, but he found that they were not available in his state. He ended up getting his insurance through a local business group.

There's also some risk in contracting, as you can't always guarantee that a new job will be waiting for you as soon as you finish your current assignment. "I try to give myself three months to find a contract," Zukowski says. "This allows me to be more selective and shoot for a better rate. Worst case scenario I can find something in a week or two but it more than likely won't be for a rate I would want long-term."

Geography Plays a Role

One of the most important questions contractors must face is whether or not they want to stay in the same area or take jobs in a different region of the country, if not the world. Some geographic regions Houston, Georgia, Boston and New Jersey, to name a few have plenty of jobs, allowing contractors who live on those parts of the country to easily transition from one assignment to the next.

But other regions might have fewer jobs or experience shifts in staffing needs. Contractors taking assignments in those areas might live in rented houses or trailers for a few months at a time instead of their own homes. Peak Technical has been sending a lot of employees to Western Canada and some to South America, where needs are currently at an all-time high.

"Individuals have different aspirations and willingness and openness to travel for short or long periods of time," Rogers says. Part of Randstad's screening process involves finding out which employees are willing to work in what regions. "About 50 percent of the time, they are entrenched in an area," he says.

As an ex-Marine, Hipple says his feet start growing roots if he stays in one place for too long, so he enjoys the travel. He makes sure to negotiate predictable time at home with his family every four or five weeks. Other contractors might commute back and forth every weekend if the jobs are close enough to their homes. Hipple says he bases his pay rate on the region where he'll be working by looking at the local standard of living.

How to Get Started (and Keep Working) as a Contractor

Rogers says the process of becoming a contract engineer starts with a good resume. "We like to see what industries people have worked in, what specific projects they've worked on, and any software or hardware that they've worked with." They also like to know up front type of job you're looking for and whether or not you're willing to relocate.

Narvekar recommends tailoring your resume to the contract job you seek. "I think the resume needs to talk about that assignment's specific need. Provide specific examples of what you did and how you resolved problems. If you don't know how to do this in your resume, write a cover letter to explain why you think you're a good fit," he suggests.

Many contracting jobs are found through recruiters like Peak Technical and Randstad, which maintain databases of available employees and their skills. "Contractors treat us as their agent," Salvucci says. "It's just like with football players and with actors, they're looking for the next gig. We keep them informed about other assignments that might suit them as they approach the end of their assignment."

If you have the skills and aren't solely looking for job security, Salvucci encourages people to give contracting a try. "If you're a good engineer and you work hard and you keep yourself up to date, you're probably a great candidate to become a career contractor," he says.


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


Copyright 2012 IEEE

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