Freelance engineers see their numbers boom

The number of engineering professionals who work as contractors has shot up by more than two-third over the last five years, an accountant with official data calculates.

In fact, there were 32,911 engineering contractors in 2011, compared to just over 55,000 last year, representing a rise of 68%, found Nixon Williams, in receipt of figures from the ONS.

That means the stock of engineers who work for themselves has risen at more than three times the rate of the economy (self-employment as a whole is up 17.5% over the same period).

The massive growth in contractor engineers also coincides with miniscule growth in permanently employed engineers -- up just 0.9% from 203,000 in 2011, to 205,000 in 2016.

“Skills shortages in the engineering sector…[have] enabled engineers to be increasingly selective about work, which has made contracting more appealing,” said Nixon’s CEO Derek Kelly.

He believes that these shortages have been exacerbated by “mega projects” such as Crossrail, HS2 and Hinkley Point C.

But it’s not just giant programmes. Other smaller engineering concerns want -- and so have shifted towards “more flexible and cost-effective workforce management”.

The accountant reflected: “Contractors are like a tap they can turn on and off as workloads vary, while they retain a relatively smaller core of permanent employees.”

The maturing of contracting was also said to have helped attract greater temporary practitioners, as it has in bedfellow industry IT, just at a time when employment rights being eroded has dimmed the appeal of permanent work.  

And a rate beating a salary will be the clincher for many, including women who although Nixon Williams says have driven the growth in contractor engineers, still make up only about 3% of the contract engineering workforce.

It said: “In high demand areas, such as engineering, contractors are often at no greater risk of being out of work than employees, and the higher take-home pay is usually sufficient to cover any gaps between contracts.”

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