This online handbook is designed for beginning consultants

If you're new to consulting or independent contracting, you need a resource for job-search techniques, pay rates, legal issues, and other aspects of the market. The Contract Employee's Handbook is up to the task.

The contracting profession can be viewed as a continuum. At one extreme are agency-dependent contract employees. At the other end are agency-independent direct consultants. All contract workers fall somewhere on this continuum.

So says author and Webmaster James Ziegler. He offers a detailed guide for those wanting to understand the various opportunities along the continuum: The Contract Employee’s Handbook, a public-service Web site that delivers unbiased information designed to help W-2 contract employees manage their contracting careers. Topics include a comprehensive overview of the contracting profession, specific job-search techniques, types of employment agencies and their services, pay rates, legal issues, and benefits packages. In this article, I’ll talk about what specific tools I found useful on the site and why it’s a good starting point for the beginning consultant.

Chapters available for downloading
Ziegler launched the first online edition of the handbook in 1997. He has recently begun updating it and offering it as a series of free downloadable PDF files, which come in pretty handy when you get tired of reading on-screen. As of this writing, three sections were available in PDF: Chapter 1, "An Overview of Technical and Professional Contracting"; Chapter 5, "Resumes for Contract Workers"; and Appendix A, "Resources for Contract Workers."

You’ll also find thorough descriptions of the different types of contract employment agencies. The site offers advice on how to work each type to your advantage, outlines the benefits and drawbacks of being self-employed, and addresses legal issues, such as whether you should incorporate.

One chapter provides a long list of the benefits that self-employed workers miss out on, but Ziegler explains how to set a minimum acceptable pay rate that factors in the replacement value of those benefits and perks—and this rate even makes it okay to give yourself a few paid days off.

Throughout the book, you get words of wisdom from the Web site’s mascot, prospector Dungaree Dan, who uses phrases like “by diggity,” and offers such advice as, “If you don't know what your agency is billing for your services, you’re mining fool’s gold.” The ersatz prospector talk gets a bit tiresome, but the advice is usually pretty good.

A contractor’s newsletter
Besides offering the online handbook, the site invites you to sign up for free issues of the Contract Employee’s Newsletter, a twice-monthly publication containing tips from contractors as well as links to useful resources and advice on avoiding unscrupulous recruiting firms.

The site also includes a copy of Ziegler’s Contract Worker’s Bill of Rights, which defines professional, ethical, and legal conduct by brokers and contractors. Agencies that promise to adhere to the standards are encouraged to display a “We pass the acid test” logo on their Web sites, and Ziegler provides a list of links to the agencies that do.

Ziegler is also the founder and director of P.A.C.E. (Professional Association Of Contract Employees), a payroll management firm, benefits administrator, and employer of record for independent contractors who want to maintain W-2 status. With that background, you can bet on the value and reliability of this site.

The Contract Employee’s Handbook is certainly recommended reading for anyone considering making the leap from a regular corporate job to contracting work.

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology reporter.

Have you found a great online resource for independent IT contractors? Tell us about it! Post a comment below or send us a note.

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