Quick guide to contract work for IT job hunters

Eighty-two per cent of CIOs find contracts valuable for evaluating prospective employees, according to an IT staffing firm. How to tailor your resume, land the job and increase your chances of moving into a permanent position. Plus, where the opportunities lie and the pros and cons of contract work.

IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology recently interviewed 270 CIOs across Canada on the value of using contracts and project work to evaluate prospective employees for full-time employment in their IT departments.

According to the survey, eight out of ten CIOs find it "beneficial to bring in prospective employees on a contract basis before hiring them for full-time roles."

The benefits of hiring on contract have always been there, said Igor Abramovitch, branch manager of Robert Half Technology in Toronto. "We've seen a lot of contract-to-hire scenarios and typically it's done for evaluation purposes of the employee," he said.

But the preference for assessing candidates through contract work might be emphasized given the current state of the economy. "Companies are operating with leaner teams and lower budgets so hiring mistakes are even more costly," he said.

Employers will also bring a person in on a project-based assignment when they aren't certain of the workload and hope the workload will continue so they are able to retain the person full time, he said.

Pros and Cons of working under contract

Contract is sometimes a preamble for full-time work, said Jennifer Perrier Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. "Often when employers take on contractors they are fishing for full-time people but they aren't too sure whether they have enough work for somebody full time or they don't want to commit. They want to make sure somebody is a good fit first," she said.

But disadvantages include the lack of benefits and the possibility of being released without advanced notice, she pointed out. "You're more subject to business whim. Sometimes you never really become part of the team. It can be a lone-wolf or an isolating type of experience," she said.

Despite the risks, contract work can prevent extended gaps in your resume and keep your skills up-to-date. If you've been out of work for about six months and still aren't satisfied with what you are seeing on the market, it's a good idea to take on some project work, Abramovitch suggested.

Where the opportunities lie: contract versus full-time

Sapphire Technologies Canada has definitely noticed more opportunities for contract work than permanent positions over the last year, said Sergio Mateus, president of the IT staffing services firm. But opportunities for full-time work have recently begun to grow, he pointed out.

"In the last two months, we have certainly seen indications and greater demand for full-time opportunities. I'm glad to say it's happening right across the country. It's not something that's strictly isolated just to one of the regions within which we operate," he said.

Robert Half sees equal opportunities for both. "There are definitely companies who are looking for full-time [permanent] employees right now. There's also companies looking for contract-to-hire and contract-only ... it's a healthy mix of both," said Abramovitch.

Info-Tech has been advising clients to move to a flexible or agile staffing model for IT, said Perrier-Knox. "A larger component of that staffing base would be contract workers because when times get tough, contractors are much easier to let go," she said.

Perrier-Knox expects to see IT departments make more use of contractors to support the agile model for the workforce, but contractors are the first to let go, she pointed out. "IT layoffs aren't finished yet ... We see contractors, especially in the area of application development, getting cut quite a bit," she said.

How to land a contract

Robert Half released a series of tips on landing IT contract positions, along with its survey results. Suggestions include working with a specialized staffing firm and emphasizing short-term results in the job interview. "Employers want to see that you can ramp up quickly and contribute immediately," states the firm.

Other suggestions include keeping active on business and social networking sites, attending networking events and keeping skills up to par by taking courses, working towards professional certification or performing volunteer work.

Tailoring your resume to the job

A resume targeted to contract work should be no longer than two pages, according to Robert Half. The firm also suggests highlighting "areas of IT expertise, current skills and quantifiable results with past employers" at the top, followed by "an abbreviated work history or relevant jobs and contract positions."

Definitely tailor your resume if you're applying for contract work, Abramovitch suggested, and emphasize short-term ROI. If you were previously in a full-time role, show that you were able to learn quickly and deliver results quickly, he said.

Contractors are brought in to perform very specific tasks for very specific periods of time and are hired and paid a premium for their skill set and experience, so their resumes should key in on the skill sets and experience for which an organization would pay a premium, said Mateus.

Quantifying your skills is very important, according to Mateus. The clients who are hiring those contractors want to understand what is the expertise that individual has and what benefits that expertise brought other organizations, he said.

"If you can somehow put a value or tie some tangible numbers to whatever that benefit was, this is of great value, again, because of the inherent higher cost associated with contractors," he said.

Demonstrate your project management capabilities, suggested Perrier-Knox. "The onus will be on (contractors) to deliver against deadlines in way that would not be expected from a full-time permanent employee. They need to show they can manage the contract from their end," she said.

Mention that you are looking for contract work in your cover letter, Perrier-Knox added. "Be up front with what your career plans are. There are some people who will only work on contract and they need to make that clear, but if both full-time and contract are things you are willing to consider, absolutely put that in a cover letter," she said.

Increase your chances of moving from contract to full-time

Once you get the contract, try to build connections within the organization and become part of the team, suggested Perrier-Knox. "Your chances are probably better if you get that face time with the rest of the team and demonstrate not only do you have the technical knowledge to do the job, but also that you're going to fit with the culture of the organization and people enjoy working with you," she said.

Your chances of landing full-time work through a contract role are also increased if you work on-site as opposed to a remote location, according to Perrier-Knox. "The more you're known to a full-time employer, the better the chances of it turning into a full-time commitment," she said.

This story, "Quick guide to contract work for IT job hunters" was originally published by ComputerWorld-Canada.

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