It's dull being an IT contractor

Contractors generally have greater experience than permanent employees, are more conscientious, and can be relied on for five days a week while 'permies' are in company meetings, on training courses or taking holidays.

You'd think, therefore, that contractors would be the first choice when staffing a project or trying to fill a vacancy.

But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Writing on the CUK bulletin board, MarillionFan kicked off a debate, rattling contractor sensitivities, by admitting he'd been told, "I think it's a mistake giving this piece of work to a contractor."

And other contractors admit to suffering boring roles while permanent members of the same project team 'get all the interesting work.'

Cynical contractor, Doug Twistner puts forward three common scenarios that see contractors end up with the dull jobs.

Client companies would rather pay you too much to do boring work than have fifteen employees whinging about how boring their job is and how poorly they are paid.

Client companies place you alongside permies nobody else is willing to put up with; usually due to a lack of their social skills rather than technical ability.

Or, as many optimistic organisations have admitted, contractors are teamed up with permies of less ability, in the hope the freelancer's skills will magically rub off.

Cynical or not, many contractors would agree there is an element of truth to Twistner's comments and would add that clients fill jobs with permanent staff, often giving them a choice of role, before recruiting contractors. Naturally, only the dull roles are left over.

Yet not all contractors have experienced such an inclination.

After an informal poll of PCG members, John Kell, PCG policy officer, reported the majority of contractors believed positions were filled meritoriously.

"Many observed that work was usually given to the most appropriate person: very often the contractors are more technically able and so get the more interesting work," he said, adding that it would be unwise for companies not to use contractors' skills to the full.

The view is supported by contract project manager, Anne McMahon. Of her most recent clients she says, "I would disagree with contractors when they say that they miss out on good positions [compared] to permies. I need to pick the right person for the right job whether that makes me popular with the permies or not."

However she adds that, "From a political point of view, you do need to balance the work going to contractors versus permies, and all else being equal, I would promote permies."

Kell says PCG members report a division among clients "between those who view their contractors as 'temps' in a pejorative sense, and accordingly give them the donkey work, and those who see them as experts hired-in for a reason."

This, it seems, is the nature of contracting. It's probably best you get used to it if you want to remain happy, particularly as you gain experience but find yourself trapped in low-level positions that pay good money for performing hardly the most glamorous IT functions.

"As you develop as a contractor, it is your lot to be interviewed by those less able, to work under team leaders with less ability, and to be passed over for interesting jobs so that lesser-skilled permanent staff can progress their careers," says Robert Wallace, contract programmer and designer.

Think of yourselves as "disposable special forces," says one commentator, describing how his work in the financial services "is not dull, but it is stupidly hard, challenging and dangerous."

Dangerous? Well we have become a very risk-averse society, and when it gets too hot to pound the keyboard, CUK bulletin boarder Zippy offers sound advice by saying that simply having an escape plan might be enough to get you through.

"Quietly count the money and plan your move to the next gig," he says.

A new contract should keep the boredom level suppressed for another few months, at least.

William Knight


Wednesday 6th Dec 2006
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