In the next 10 to 15 years, as many as half of American professionals could be contract workers, meaning they earn income from a variety of organizations rather than working full time for one company. Given how quickly this trend is taking hold in the United States and the fact that only a minority percentage of the American workforce has past or current experience with contract employment, individuals who expect to be gainfully employed through mid-century have a steep learning curve.
In order to help American professionals effectively transition to contract work, Gene Zaino’s MBO Partners and DeVry University’s Career Advisory Board, of which I am a member, conducted a survey of already successful contract workers to identify the traits and skills that are most essential for getting and staying ahead in this type of employment situation. Based on our findings, here are our primary recommendations for aspiring contract employees.
Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Survey respondents told us that in addition to having solid expertise in their field, successful contract workers must be self-motivated self starters who have the ability to cope with uncertainty and an unpredictable income stream. They must be able to work alone while also possessing strong communication skills. Does this describe you? If not, admitting that you have some work to do is the first step. To enhance these critical skills, take advantage of opportunities to work on projects independently and collaborate with a diverse group of colleagues, partners and clients.
Bolster Your Network Organically
Many independent contractors aren’t gifted salespeople, but this apparently doesn’t matter as much as we might think. Most of our survey respondents don’t cold call or rely on traditional advertising to get business. Instead, they constantly expand their networks so that they are able to connect to prospective clients through current ones. Sales are all about word-of-mouth referrals, so reputation is king. This means that if you want to be a successful contract worker, you have to do such a great job that the people with whom you work want to talk about it. Furthermore, you must regularly communicate with people from various phases of your professional life and constantly seek new contacts. If you’ve been lazy about this because you have a full-time job and don’t need another one, it’s time to get moving. You will need these people sooner than you think.
Leave in Good Stead
Many of our survey respondents, including 57 percent of our female contractors, told us that they receive a large portion of assignments from former full-time employers. Successful contractors are able to make the transition from an employee relationship to a service provider relationship because they leave each and every full-time job on excellent terms — with employers thinking they can’t live without that person. Those accustomed to burning bridges because they believe they have nothing to lose will want to rethink that strategy. Most industries are pretty small communities, and in the world of contract work, where you might have hundreds of individual employers in your career as opposed to just a handful, you will inevitably run into the same people again and again.
Understand the Limitations of Social Media
Our independent contractor pool reported that while social media is important for brand building, it generally does not generate income. In fact, just 6 percent of respondents said that social media outreach led to paid project work. New and aspiring contractors should therefore adjust their expectations with respect to what social media will and won’t do for them, and refrain from spending too much time socializing on these networks. Having a professional website and a basic presence on general and industry-specific networks is smart, but putting all of your eggs in the proverbial social media basket is not.
Don’t Be in a Rush to Go Solo
Successful contractors are more likely to be older — with the bulk being 35 or older. Presumably this is the case because more seasoned professionals have had more time to establish their networks and reputations, and have a greater number of prior employers from which to draw. Instead of jumping right into a contract employment situation that’s extremely risky, younger workers should consider spending a few years in an organization that could help them jump-start their own businesses. While employed full time, younger professionals should work on enhancing their transferable skill repertoire (project management, marketing, finance, general business acumen, etc.), branding their expertise in the public domain and establishing senior-level relationships inside and outside of their current organizations.
Although technological advances allow many contract workers to offer their services globally, the majority of our respondents still obtain most of their assignments within a single metro area or state rather than nationally or internationally. Successful contractors work at least one-third of the time onsite at a local client, and another third work partially onsite. While it’s a good idea to think about how you might leverage a larger and more diverse pool of potential employers, aspiring contractors should not forget the importance of being visible in their local communities. In particular, you should have regular access to employers who already hire contractors like you. Make this happen by joining and participating actively in your local chapters of third-party industry associations and attending business-related conferences serving your geographic area.
If you’re considering a contract or freelance career, do you know what you need to do to prepare?