Career Currents: Contract positions - going for the money may not always be the wisest move

So, when was the last time you had to pay for your own health insurance? InfoWorld's Margaret Steen says that before you jump at those high hourly rates for contract work, you better be prepared for uncertainty and a bunch of new headaches.

This week's question: What are the pros and cons of taking a contracting job?

A reader recently wrote me asking if he should leave his full-time job, which he recently started, for a contracting position that pays more.

"In my career I have had many job changes, so I was thinking about establishing a more stable career history. But I find that once again I am being enticed away by a contracting recruiter offering big money," wrote the reader, who is currently working as a Windows programmer and would like to become an Internet developer. "Does the contracting field pay substantially more money over the long run, and how will a decision to jump ship so soon affect my chances of landing a good permanent position later in my career, once I do decide to settle down?"

The reader has identified two central issues for anyone to consider who is being tempted by the thought of contracting. First, is contracting indeed better than permanent work? And second, will taking a contracting job now make it harder to get a full-time position later on?

Whether contracting is preferable to permanent work depends on who you are and what's important to you.

Some people enjoy the freedom that contracting offers to choose their assignments and set their own vacations. They like being paid by the hour, so if they work extra hours they see an immediate reward. And they enjoy the challenge of working on new projects all the time.

Other people, however, miss the long-term working relationships you can develop with co-workers when you're a permanent worker. And some find the constant self-promotion that's necessary to succeed as a contractor distasteful.

In fact, a recent survey of contractors by the online job site found that almost half of them cited having to constantly market themselves as one of the things they disliked about their careers. One quarter of the contractors also cited not having a steady paycheck as a drawback.

Although the contractors in this survey seemed more concerned about marketing than about their finances, it's also worth taking a close look at the financial side of contracting. Contractors usually earn more per hour than full-time employees doing similar work, but they’re also responsible for their own insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits.

If you're trying to choose between a permanent position and a contracting job, consider the entire compensation package offered by each. The results of this calculation may vary depending on your situation. For example, for a person who can be covered by a spouse's health insurance, the lack of benefits attached to a contracting job may not be a big problem. Likewise, someone who has substantial savings or a spouse with a steady income may not be as bothered by the fluctuations in pay as someone who is depending on contracting to pay the bills.

The reader who wrote to me also asked how leaving a job for a contracting position will affect his career in the long run.

Contractors are becoming an integral part of the IT world. Some predictions say that in the future, less and less IT work will be done by internal IT staff members. (Although much of the outsourced work may go to outsourcing companies, not individual contractors.) So, moving between contracting and permanent positions may well become more common in the future. And even now, contracting is not necessarily an obstacle to getting a permanent job later.

There's a catch, however. Any time you're a candidate for a permanent position, you'll need to convince the people making the hiring decisions that you're willing to make a long-term commitment. This is particularly tricky for someone who has been contracting for a long time.

For someone like the reader who wrote to me, who lacks a stable job history and who may leave a permanent position after a short time to take a higher-paying contracting job, making this case can sometimes be awfully difficult.

Career Current appears courtesy of InfoWorld. Margaret Steen has edited InfoWorld's Enterprise Careers section since its inception and has worked as a high-tech journalist since 1994.

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