Contract extensions? Just say NO!

It can befall any contractor.

It's no respecter of age or gender. It creeps up like cold winter nights and can lock you in a comfort blanket you'll find hard to shed.

According to Sarah Pitkin, associate director, Sanderson Recruitment, "The average length of contract across Sanderson's 1200 live contractors is currently 19 weeks. A total of 23 percent of the population have been contracting continuously with the same customer for 24 months or more."

Yes, I'm talking about the terrible, permie-like, vegetative state of a long-term contractor. A disease that traps you in one place, decays your CV and spreads fear of the mysterious, fast-moving industry beyond your contractual prison bars. A disease, all too easy to catch.

It is the nature of contracting that most positions are for an initial three or six months and are then extended. Extension is common and sought after. It is a chance for the client to signal happiness and for you to ask for a rate rise.

"If the contractor has done a good job, if they are technically very good and get on well with others, then they invariably have their contract extended," says Sam Mikkelsen, director for Ess&cee partners Ltd, the IT recruitment specialists.

But extension focus can lead you away from true contracting.

Nigel Green, who refuses to use his real name, admits he has had the bug. "There's always a good reason for being long-term. I started when the market was buoyant, and it got harder and harder to leave as the bottom fell out of the market but my rate was still way up high. I started working four days a week, it was a 'cruisy' walk from home, and it all became very cushy."

With no contractor's support group to turn to, it took several years to get out, and Green still gets the urge to extend indefinitely. He tries to stop himself.

"It starts with one small puff," he says. "Surely six weeks can't harm me, but they keep pushing; just another three months. You think you can handle it, and before you know it you're pulled in, with no escape. It sucks the life out of you, your skills get out of date, your CV grows at less than one page a year."

Yet some contractors do not get the buzz. They begin contracts already looking for an exit. "I've been in the IT industry for 20 years and contracting for 17 of them. In that time I have had 14 contracts. Simple maths reveals me as an itinerant developer," says Timothy Dorney.

He even believes that long-term contractors are slackers, stagnating in knowledge, lacking the experience and confidence to step out of their comfort zone.

There is a definite life cycle to Dorney's contracts, he explains. Green field designs, followed by flexing neglected programming muscles, then implementation and the plaudits of grateful users.

The magic ends when the project enters support. "Oh! the drudgery of support, while across the office the laughter and cork-popping of the next batch of developers. Time to leave methinks."

And staying long-term can be bad for the CV, explains Mikkelsen. "The contractor needs to show they have a wide and varied skill set and are able to fit into any company culture. In some cases, a CV that has 4-6 contracts over a 2-5 year period may look better to a potential client than someone who has worked at one company for the last 2-3 years."

It's not only bad for the CV, but bad for the wallet, he adds. "If they get 'stuck' with one client for too long, they might well be stuck on the same rate with no room for an increase."

Nonetheless, personal circumstances often provide the deciding factors. "It is fair to say that where the contract is local and convenient to the contractor's home life, the popularity of a long-term project increases demonstrably," says Pitkin.

This is certainly the case for Jane Marple, contract test manager, who remained in one place for two-and-a-half-years. "I was keen to stay there because it was extremely local to home. I started off as a humble analyst and ended up as Release Manager.

She doesn't believe it did her any harm at all. "Looks damned good on my CV," she says.

In the end, you have to fit with your prospective client's needs, and long-term experience may be just what they are after.

"What is right for one customer is not necessarily right for another," says Pitkin.

So all is not lost if you find yourself stuck in the same chair for years on end. But once the clock ticks past twelve months, you've got to ask yourself, "Am I here because I want to be, or because I'm hooked?"

William Knight


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