IT contracting 2008 - Winners & Losers

For its sheer scale and for being widely unforeseen, the credit crunch cue global recession has achieved a first – explaining both the best and worst of a year in IT contracting.

In previous, less turbulent times, the CUK readers' survey recognised the heroes and villains of the year, providing newcomers 'the skinny' on what to expect and from whom.

While this year's survey will still help contractors make decisions in the future, it also reads as a historical roadmap, dotted with the bumps and turns of a stalling economy.

Responding to the question, 'who or what was the biggest hindrance to IT contracting in 2008?,' the most popular answer, voiced by a more than a quarter, was the 'credit crisis,' or the ensuing 'recession.'

Almost a fifth said IR35, down from its number of complainers last year, while the state was cited by 16% - some of whom stressed they only voted for it for fuelling the financial turmoil.

Asked what has changed IT contracting the most, normally a reserve for government-imposed regulations, contractors kept on-message – 'the recession,' a third of the sample answered.

While most were downbeat about its impact on IT contracting, some contractors said the economic clouds hanging over their core markets, the UK, US and Europe, had a silver lining.

Cost-cutting clients paring back the fat will rid IT departments of the "less qualified", and 'force contractors to adopt' a more rigorous "business approach" to their assignments.

Other respondents were more gloomy about their prospects in 2009: redundant employees are intensifying competition for contracts, and an overabundance of their skills will result.

Another warning from the survey was that these newcomers to the market will price their skills at a lower rate, in line with their shallower experience, effectively undercutting in-work contractors.

With recruiters "already getting cocky" about being in a buyers' market, the worry for one respondent was being out of work – a fear made more creditable by contractor layoffs at major clients like BT.

But despite eliminating 6,000 IT contractor jobs last month, the teleco was voted the 'Best Client' of 2008, beating off competition from bigger victims of the credit crunch, like RBS.

"BT is delighted to be recognised for this award," a BT spokeswoman said, accepting CUK's congratulations.

"Third party contractors remain a valued part of BT's workforce, however as we operate in a sector where prices are falling all the time, we have to continually reduce our costs.

"This means an overall reduction in our total labour force, with the focus on retaining and re-skilling as many of our direct staff as possible."

For not ejecting them from their IT posts, contractors responding to the category also endorsed a few government departments, praising them as reassuringly resilient during the fiscal woes.

To source their work, most contractors use recruitment agencies, sometimes begrudgingly, partly explaining why 'Best Agency' of the year was the most contested category.

Votes poured in for Elan, the UK and Europe-facing agency, as they did for Hays, the FTSE-listed recruiter, which was narrowly beaten to the title by Adecco Group's Computer People.

"We are delighted to receive this award from the readers of Contractor UK," said Nick Dettmar, Computer People's managing director.

"As a company we're passionate about guiding people through their career and employment opportunities and... it's fantastic to get such a positive response from our candidates in such challenging times."

Retaining its accolade from last year, JobServe won the 'Best Job Board' for IT contractors, winning 60% of the vote, ahead of the runner-up CW Jobs, followed in third place by Jobsite.

Also celebrating consecutive yearly wins is SJD Accountancy, which scooped 'Best Accountant', having won more than half the vote, trumping Nixon Williams and Plan IT in joint second.

Founder Simon Dolan said: "Out of all the awards we win, this one without doubt means the most to me because it is the only one voted for by contractors.

"I'd like to say a big thank you to all the staff at SJD who work so tirelessly to really go the extra mile for our clients, and of course to each and every one of our 9000 clients".

Like the accountant, another core feature of the contracting landscape is the umbrella company, which, despite being under threat from HMRC, received a healthy number of votes.

None more so in the category than ContractorUmbrella, as contractors voted it as the 'Best Brolly' of 2008, usurping Giant Group into third place, and convincingly beating Parasol in second.

Director Lisa Keeble reflected: "To receive the Best Umbrella Company Award from the readers of the most popular contractor website in the UK really is a fantastic achievement".

"The entire team at ContractorUmbrella was thrilled to hear the news as it is real recognition from the people who matter most to us - our customers."

Elsewhere in the CUK survey, almost a fifth said the primary reason they work in IT as a contractor, rather than a full-timer, is the freedom to choose where, when and how they work.

However, a significant 12% of the sample said that whatever the lure of contracting to them, the recession will force them to give it up in 2009 for the stability of a permanent job.

The highest proportion of respondents to the question 'what keeps you contracting?' cited 'money' and 'demand for my skills', and indicates nearly half remain undisturbed by imminent recession.

But perhaps the most telling sign, albeit a light-hearted one, that the economic gloom has become almost too much to bare, 'Forum Personality' of 2009 went to the aptly-named 'Eternal Optimist.'

The vote marks a slight departure from previous years where the posters of witty, sometimes cutting, comments on CUK's Bulletin Board were the only nominees and winners of the title.

Yet suggesting some will be laughing through the gloom rather than crying, scores of contractors voted 'Put more jokes here' as the second 'Best Forum Thread.'

The post was marginally edged by 'test: please delete', a now censored thread of the Web's barely dressed ladies, which has been viewed more than one million times.

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