The fast pace of technology can be a consultant’s worst enemy. As you finish implementing a hot new technology solution for a client, you may see dollar signs dancing before your eyes. But your new skills can quickly become old news when the next new technology becomes popular. Even if you learn the new skill, you’ll be hard-pressed to earn new contracts based on experience.

Consultants who have just left a full-time job may have recent, relevant experience, but over time those skills become dated. And while some can find the time to study for exams, certifications are often not enough to win new business, said Gary Benjamin, president of the consulting firm Benjamin Consulting Group, Ltd., in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He takes on contracts as a business analyst and as a software engineer using Microsoft Visual Basic and Microsoft Access.  Even with 20 years of experience, Benjamin said he often finds it hard to land contracts using fresh skills.

“Most employers demand that you have demonstrated your abilities with experience,” Benjamin said. “The problem is getting that first contract using your newly acquired skill.”

Benjamin has three strategies for developing new skills while still bringing home the bacon. Use these suggestions to put together your own arsenal of talents.

The fundamental problem
The way employers view consultants—as a costly short-term resource—is the reason employers won’t pay to help upgrade a consultant’s skills, Benjamin said. IT managers or CIOs, eager to get 100 percent of the time they’re paying for, want a consultant who doesn’t have to learn a new skill.

Benjamin said this isn’t a problem for IT pros who work as permanent employees because the company sees them as long-term resources and is prepared to allocate a certain amount of time to let them learn and practice new skills. He says that there are three reasons companies are prepared to sacrifice that time:

  1. They realize it is key to keeping employees interested in the job.
  2. It is in their interest to have employees with skills that are up to date.
  3. It is less expensive to let employees spend a certain amount of time learning new skills than it is to train a new person to replace an employee.

Also, employees are paid less than consultants, so companies can justify the time spent learning at a lower rate, he said.

Three possible solutions
What’s the best approach for an experienced consultant who needs to learn new skills? Benjamin suggested three strategies:

Join a team and learn from others
Some consulting firms assemble teams of consultants at client sites. Because clients hire a firm based on its reputation as a whole, not on the reputation of individual consultants, the firm is free to send a team of experienced consultants along with junior consultants who can pick up new skills on the job.

“If you join such a firm while you are experienced in one area, and mentor their junior people, eventually that firm will reciprocate and give you a chance to gain new skills,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said many consulting firms promise this type of skills-building arrangement as a condition of employment.

Use your personal time to study for on-the-job training
If you’re willing to trade some personal time to build your skills, Benjamin said you could use your “chemistry” with a decision-maker to win a contract you’re not quite ready to handle.

“I encountered one such company by doing informational interviews,” Benjamin said. “The person I spoke with hit it off with me, and when a contract came up he gave me the opportunity to pursue it, even though I had only about half the expertise.”

The arrangement was that Benjamin would learn the new skills required on his own time. The engagement turned out well and, since the initial contract, he has taken on several others under the same conditions. The key is to find firms that hire consultants based on their overall technical knowledge, their general knowledge of nontechnical aspects of business and consulting, and their willingness to learn, he said.

Use established relationships and discounted rates
If you’ve worked with a client and produced results on previous projects, you may be able to talk your way into a new project by discounting your rates. This strategy only works if “you have established a rapport with the client, and they have the confidence in you to do the job if you say you can do it,” Benjamin said.

In return for the opportunity, you should either charge a rate similar to what a junior would charge, or put in some free time when you need to learn new material to do the job.

Do you have a better idea?

Benjamin said he’s open to new strategies and hopes to hear some from TechRepublic members. If you’ve found an innovative way to earn experience with new skills, send us an e-mail or post your comments below.