Be wary of headhunters when you join the contracting game

Contract work does pay well and allows you to be your own boss. But are you ready for the influx of recruiters who will surely be beating down your door?

So you want to be a contractor. You’ve heard your co-workers bragging about the money and the freedom of being a gun for hire. You’ve read about the tremendous shortage of skilled labor in the industry and have decided that with your skills and experience you could be a commodity in this business and virtually write your own ticket.

But before you relinquish what little security you currently have, you’ll want to examine the downside as well. One drawback is the number of recruiters who will soon be harassing you on a regular basis. Here’s what you can expect from them.

An army of headhunters
The business of IT contracting is an industry that has come into existence virtually overnight, capitalizing on a very specialized market niche: supply and demand. Today there are more than ten times as many “headhunters” than there were just a few short years ago, and the numbers seem to be growing exponentially. The advent of the Internet has played a major role in the proliferation of this pool of sharks through such well-known and well-visited Web sites as,, and, where you’re invited to post your resume online, usually free of charge, for the whole world to see. These sites, and others like them, serve as a favorite watering hole for the vultures circling overhead looking for a warm body to fill a quota and generate a commission.

Once you submit your resume to one of these sites, be prepared for an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails from an army of sales driven, Generation X “account provisioners.” These individuals don’t know the difference between a T1 line and a 56k circuit and couldn’t begin to explain the functionality of a central office or its role in the network.

A lack of knowledge and research
What exacerbates the problem is the fact that most “recruiters” don’t care about the workings of the industry itself or, for that matter, you personally. Their job is to fill a slot for their client, and that’s where their priority lies. The client pays the bills. It’s of no consequence to them that you, as the hired gun, generate that income both for the client as well as the contractor. This fact is especially true in the international arena. So be prepared to receive calls at your home at all hours of the day and night—from all over the world—without regard to your privacy. The Internet is a global tool and has effectively blurred the lines between time zones. Messages will be left on your answering machine touting some great opportunity and leaving a long distance number for you to return their call for more information at your expense. These are automatically deleted at my house.

Calls will come from recruiters who haven’t even read your resume. They’ll proceed to ask you what you do. Some are a little more inventive and will try a different approach to derive this information from you. They’ll phrase it differently by asking me to describe a typical day on the job. Same dog, different fleas.

There will also be calls from people asking you for information that is clearly provided on the resume you originally submitted. They don’t have the answers because they normally don’t read past the first half page.

Their lack of homework regarding your resume brings about other time-wasting inquiries as well. There will inevitably come the calls regarding a position requiring qualifications that do not match yours. After you point out to the ill-informed recruiter that you do not have the skill set required for the position about which they are calling, they’ll then ask you if you know someone who does. Does this mean that they will split their commission with you in gratitude for your referral? Don’t bet on it!

Jumping through hoops
It’s all about priorities in the contracting game: yours and theirs. Of the remaining 20 to 25 percent of your leads that make it past the ignorance test, half of those will be eliminated quickly after you’re asked what type of salary you’d require. This will usually occur very early in the conversation. After all, if they can’t make any money from you, why continue? They have a set limit for the position at which their profitability is maximized before a call is ever placed to you. Quote a wage requirement above that limit and you are out of the ball game. Of course, most recruiters will not inform you of this. You just never hear from them again.

After you’ve narrowed the field down to those few that seem to have potential, it’s time to jump through some hoops. It is not uncommon to be asked to go through two, three, sometimes even four or five separate interviews for a single position. The initial ones are usually phone interviews.

If you happen to make the client’s representative feel warm and fuzzy on the phone, you’ll probably be moved on to the next step, which is usually a face-to-face interview at the client’s place of business. This will, in all likelihood, involve flights to and from some distant geographical area as well as an overnight stay in a motel. You will be asked to bear the expenses for said trip, initially, with the promise of future reimbursement. You should throw up a red flag immediately and recognize this for the scam it is. If you are not hired or turn down an offered position for any reason, you will never see that money. Insist to the recruiter that any travel expenses be provided for you up front. After all, any on-site interview will be at the request of the potential employer.

Look out for your own interests
Some contracting agencies are prompt in notifying you of their client’s status after the interview, usually within a few days of your arrival back home. But most will not. This is why it’s important to ask the prospective employer at the time of the interview their time frame for filling the position.

Professional courtesy in the contracting business is non-existent. Appointments will be made with no intention of being kept. There’s little concern for your schedule, or for keeping you informed in the matter. This seems to be a foreign concept to most recruiters and is in fact ubiquitous in the industry. What they don’t seem to realize, and what you should know, is that in today’s job market they need you more than you need them. Remember this and let it be your defense. The only thing worse than a lack of professionalism is someone who doesn’t know or care that they’re being unprofessional.

So give it a hard second look before you take that plunge into the contracting pool. Be circumspect and certain that you have a high tolerance level and the type of personality required for the players in this game. The decision is invariably yours to make. There’s no doubt an abundance of work exists for qualified and experienced people in this industry. If you feel like a small fish in a big pond at your current position, then go ahead and take the plunge. Just beware of the sharks.

Timothy Huckabee is a telecommunications/IT consultant and a Certified Cisco Professional. He currently works for ICG Communications.

What do you think?
Have you been run over by the recruiting game in the past? Got a story to share? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have a suggestion for an article, please send us a note.


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