If you are a contract worker, independent consultant or freelancer, you might struggle to balance work with the other demands on your time. You also along with a nagging feeling that you have to accept every available project. There’s a fear, especially if you’re helping to support your family, that you have to say “yes” to every contract, and for more than one good reason. Bills pile up, unexpected challenges drain the financial well, and you can just get overwhelmed feeling like no other job will come along. I know that when I first went out on my own, especially deciding to work from home, I jumped at any opportunity. And if you’re long-term out of work, feeling forced into anything available, you may wonder what to consider as you get started.
So what are some pros and cons to weigh between contract offers? Will you feel like you’re compromising your value and setting yourself up for consistent underpayment if you take a lower paying contract to get your foot in the door somewhere? Can you land a menial gig at your dream company with the hopes of landing in the full-time ranks later, or at least create new connections in your network? Will an unexpectedly high hourly rate balance out an otherwise boring and unsatisfying role?
Start with Your Network
A great way to avoid getting stuck in the trap of low-paying or short-lived gigs, reach out to your network to see what’s available. This network includes former clients with whom it was a pleasure doing business, former co-workers or professors, or even family and friends you can contact through social networks. Sometimes they’ll be excited you’re available, yet the contracts don’t happen. It’s good to keep the likelihood of it working out in mind before you end up passing on a paid gig, just to have nothing to do. But if you can wait it out a little, it usually pays off because you know you’re a good fit and can work with people and projects you enjoy.
Review the Contract Lengths and Gauge Consistency
Contracts in the corporate world can last anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. Sometimes the organization guarantees six months, but then a budget cut reduces it to three. Other times, the projection is short, but your achievements and reliability earn you more months/years. Perhaps you gravitate toward contract work because you are unafraid of having to switch projects and companies often. Or maybe because you have a healthy nest egg available for the lean times.
Don’t be afraid to ask the recruiter or hiring manager what the likelihood of extensions or additional opportunities could be. You can glean a lot from the response. If they hesitate or even tell you outright that it’s unlikely, you’ll have a better idea if the opportunity will pay enough for long enough to cover, for example, six months of planned expenses.
Also, this is a good time to gauge from your recruiter if you’re up for a one-time gig or if the company will help get you placed consistently. If there’s a steady amount of work, you might feel more comfortable taking a short contract to start or from time to time.
Understand the Flexibility in Expectations
Even though I’m now a full-time employee and not a contract, flexibility is still especially important to me as I work from home. When you discuss the expectations with the potential client, make sure you know the time zones of other employees and customers, to know when you’ll need to be available to connect. Ask if there is an expected start or end time, or specific number of hours you need to work each day, or if there is some flexibility. Some companies are more flexible by nature; as long as you’re available online during the day and letting someone know when you’re stepping away, they’ll be fine if you’re actually completing some of the work at a different time. And some companies are even fine with you “keeping a day job.” I’ve had this happen, when I was working another contract, and the second employer was fine with me working when I wanted throughout the week, and just making sure I met deadlines.
Also, it’s important to figure out if you can even work with a lot of leeway. Are you able to stay motivated even when you’re not part of the full team, working remotely, or allowed to log in when you like? If not, you can still accept contract work, you just might want to see how they can tighten your schedule and expectations.
Find Out What You’re Responsible For
When you’re just starting out as a contractor or freelancer, you might be enticed by higher hourly rates and flexibility, so a high level of responsibility and skill building could be lower on your list. But if you’ve been in the game a while, a role without management responsibility for projects or people might no longer satisfy your need for career development. Or, you could find yourself in a situation where the expectations are too high for what you’re ready to take on. It’s important to ask about and understand the expectations before you accept the role.
Learn about the Hourly Rate and Any Benefits
It’s probably the first and most important factor most people consider: how much money will you make, and are there any available benefits? If you’re on your own with no health benefits otherwise, and you’re offered a contract with a low hourly rate, you should keep looking. Of course, if you’ve been out of work for a long time, you might just have to take the first offer that comes, and continue looking for a better role as you gain more experience for the resume and build more contacts.
Ask if You’ll Need to Travel
Travel can be a benefit when you enjoy it, but if you have a family or responsibilities close to home, it’s also draining. Make sure you know the expectations for travel, whether local or a long commute (1-2 hours away) or a longer distance. Ask about the schedule. For example, do you have to be onsite Monday through Friday, or will they let you fly home on a Thursday afternoon? What kind of rewards or benefits can you gain from the travel?
There is no right or wrong answer when you decide which contracts are right for you, but make sure you ask questions about the length of employment, pay, responsibilities, and travel to see how each role fits your current preferences along with your long-term career goals.