'Tech' the initiative: Can you become an IT contractor?

There's little doubting that it's a great time to be working in IT. In a fast-moving, rapidly-evolving sector of the economy, there are all manner of interesting opportunities for skilled professionals. Whether you're interested in design and innovation, deployment or project management - or eager to guide IT strategy - there is likely to be demand for your services today.

Because so many organisations are investing in technology - and as a consequence, are in need of IT staff - there simply aren't enough skilled and experienced professionals to go around. A shortage of computing graduates emerging from university is exacerbating this skills shortage, meaning tech specialists can command higher salaries and be more selective over their choice of roles. For those with niche skills, it is very much a seller's market.

Given the relative strength of their position, IT pros should be thinking about how they can fully take advantage and maximise their career opportunities. With employers competing for the best talent, many are seeking new jobs with improved remuneration and advancement prospects. But an increasing number of IT specialists are choosing an alternative approach to career development - on that involves striking out for themselves.

Why become an IT contractor?

There are a number of potential advantages to working as a self-employed freelancer. First and foremost, IT contractors have the opportunity to secure high rates of pay. Since there is no employer acting as a middle-man between a client and the IT pro, those with technological expertise can boost their earnings. You can charge the going rate for the services you provide, and enjoy the fruits of your labour without an employer taking a significant cut.

Of course, contractors lose the security of a guaranteed income, as well as employment benefits such as paid annual leave, sick pay and pensions contributions. This isn't for everyone. But as freelancers, IT pros have great flexibility as to where, when and how they work. Particularly for more experienced professionals - who may no longer wish to work full time - this can be a highly attractive scenario. If you wish to spend a month or two off work, taking an extended break, you've got this option - so long as you keep your skills up to date.

The nature of contracting means individuals move around from client to client, often working in different industry sectors across a range of locations. As well as providing an exciting challenge, this can help you build up an impressive CV - one that will help you secure further roles in the future.

Will there be employer demand?

Organisations are very keen to utilise IT contractors, as it offers them maximum flexibility - both in terms of resourcing and cost. Using interim managers for specific projects allows employers to bring in expertise on-demand, as and when they need it. The alternative is to hire another permanent member of staff - someone who will command a salary each month and also be entitled to a host of employment benefits.

Sometimes organisations need very specific IT skills for a one-off venture, over a pre-determined period of time. It doesn't make financial sense to hire somebody for the long term, as their specialism - which comes at a premium - is only required for a period of weeks or months. With a contractor, the employer simply shakes hands at the end of a placement and removes them from the wage bill.

Interim professionals can also offer indirect value - those who have niche skills are ideally positioned to deliver training to permanent employees. By transferring knowledge to existing teams, they can position permanent members of staff to work more productively, or even take responsibility for future projects.

Where is the demand for contractors?

Demand for IT contractors exists in a number of industry segments, driven by forces such as mobile, the cloud and big data. With many organisations revamping their IT to account for emerging solutions and delivery models, specialists are needed to oversee the selection, deployment and management of new tech systems and processes. Consulting industry resources such as the Robert Half Salary Guide to identify upcoming opportunities and benchmark salaries to see what demand there is for IT contractors.

Various opportunities exist for programme and project managers, as organisations aim for the seamless rollout of new technology, and a successful integration with existing solutions. With expertise required for the duration of deployment initiatives, the option of hiring IT contractors on a short-term basis is often seen as ideal.

Professionals with data and analytics expertise are also in high demand. Firms are investing large amounts in business intelligence solutions, recognising the value big data can offer if collected, managed and interpreted effectively. Data experts are considered vital as organisations look to manage huge volumes of information and draw insights to support strategic decision making.

There is inevitably contract work for individuals who have worked in IT leadership roles - particularly ex-chief information officers (CIOs). Experienced CIOs, those who have an expert understanding of IT's role within the wider organisation, can add huge value to organisations. They can bring disparate teams together and get them working in the same direction, and step into the breach when senior IT professionals are absent or leave unexpectedly. Contractors with leadership and management experience can bridge the gap until a permanent hire can be made.

Are you suited to IT contracting?

If you're thinking about leaving employment to become an IT contractor, you need to be fully aware of what this entails. Contracting may offer a range of benefits - for both the professional and the client - but it isn't the life for everyone. Once you enter self-employment, you're responsible for finding your own work placements - and this means networking, cultivating business relationships and potentially attending regular interviews. Specialised IT recruitment agencies can provide valuable assistance, but you have to be proactive, determined and resilient.

You'll also need to be organised, a good time-manager, and have a sound financial understanding. Unless you want to work under an umbrella company, you'll be responsible for filing your own tax returns and claiming expenses. This can be a time-consuming job, but it's vital you get it right - the last thing you want is to have HMRC on your back.

Adaptability is a key characteristic for any IT contractor. If you're stuck in your ways and unable to embrace new systems, processes, tools and working conditions, this isn't the life for you. As a contractor, moving from site to site, you've also got to have good people skills. On each placement you'll be working alongside permanent members of staff, so it's crucial that you can form new working relationships quickly and easily.

You've got to be dedicated to your work and take pride in a job well-done - your professional reputation means everything. A good one can help secure placements, as former clients may use you again or refer you to other organisations. But if you don't live up to expectations, and fail to deliver the value for money a client expected, it could seriously hamper your career prospects.

Beginning life as a contractor

If you think you've got what it takes to succeed as an IT contractor, you need to conduct research into the marketplace. Speak to specialist IT recruiters, employers and other industry contacts in order to establish whether there is sufficient demand for the services you plan to offer. Specialist skills can make you extremely attractive to certain employers, who may be willing to pay high rates of pay to secure your services. But if your skills are too niche, you may find it difficult to find regular placements.

It isn't advisable to give up your job until you're sure IT contracting is a viable option. In most cases, there will be demand for skilled and experienced IT pros, but you need to know where the opportunities are, how many organisations are looking to hire, and how much you could potentially earn.

You also need to think about how you wish to operate. Some contractors choose to set up their own limited company, of which they become the director. Others work as sole traders or through umbrella companies, which take care of financial and administrative tasks for a fee.

In summary

In a thriving technology jobs market - one where demand for talent continues to exceed supply - IT contracting represents a highly lucrative option for many professionals. This model of employment is unrivalled in terms of potential earnings, variety of work and flexibility, if you're prepared to accept the inherent risks. With so many organisations seeking skilled and experienced candidates at present, could this be the time to make the switch?

Tags: Technology