Life as an IT contractor

Independence, job variability, earning potential, skills development. But is it worth it?

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The upside of life as an IT contractor is alluring. You get to be your own boss, accept only the jobs you want, and work flexible hours. With each assignment comes the opportunity to learn new skills and gain exposure to different environments.

But there are obvious sacrifices – job security and paid vacations, for starters. As an IT contractor, you’re also often responsible for your own benefits (healthcare, retirement), paying taxes, and marketing yourself for the next gig.

Tech pros who successfully balance the pros and cons of contracting play an important role in the IT world. They provide manpower when workloads spike and can bring key expertise or niche skills to a team. In recent years, companies have increasingly relied on a contingent workforce to augment their full-time staff. In a new survey by TEKsystems, more IT leaders said they expect to increase temporary hiring (42%) than those who plan to increase full-time hiring (37%).

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On the jobs front, contingent workers make up a significant percentage of open positions. In early October, there were 36,262 contract positions posted on IT careers site, representing 44% of the 81,554 total available tech jobs.

We asked IT pros and staffing experts to talk about life as an IT contractor and share tips about the skills and habits that can lead to success. (See also: 16 tips for thriving as an IT contractor)

“I like the freedom and flexibility to set my own schedule,” says Ken Rubin of High Road Data, which provides IT consulting, web design, and programming services in Orange County, Calif. “When I worked for enterprises, I couldn't do any banking or go to the post office. Everything I needed to do personally seemed to fall in the business hours I was at work. Plus, I've been able to walk my kids to school and spend time with them in the mornings. That’s priceless.”

Jerry McKune, an independent IT contractor based in the St. Louis area, appreciates the variability of IT contracting and the opportunity to keep learning new skills. “I love variety. I cannot stand to do the same thing over and over and over again. There’s a lot of variety in the contract world.”

The challenge of variety, however, is that each new assignment means a new learning curve. “Education takes time,” McKune says. “If you’re on a six-month contract, and there’s a four- to five-month learning curve, there’s only going to be a short period of time at the end of it where you really know what you’re doing and you’re capable of performing the tasks assigned to you without help from somebody else.”

Learning to rely on other people and not being afraid to say you don’t know something are essential traits. “There are going to be a lot of situations as a contractor where you don’t know the answer. Do not tap dance. Just simply say, ‘I don’t know. But I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you within 24 hours,’” McKune says. “That’s a very powerful response.”

Employers and contract workers value flexibility

The appeal of contingent workers has risen since the recession; companies today are looking to build lean, agile IT departments that can adapt to changing business requirements, says Jason Hayman, market research manager at IT staffing and

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