Economic uncertainties have changed the face of IT consulting over the past 18 months or so. There was a time when consultants had their pick of good offers with strong companies, doing interesting, challenging, cutting-edge implementations. But today, many consultants take what’s available.

Though such conditions may be stressing out any newcomers to the field, this is a familiar cycle to the veteran consultant. There’s always something to do in the IT world but there are certainly periods when consultants don’t have the range of choices that they might like. And this is one of those times.

It’s become such a problem, in fact, that I’ve had a number of conversations with friends in the IT consulting field over the past six months in which several of them revealed that they are wondering whether it’s time to come in from the cold and settle down in a full-time position. For everyone wondering which job direction is best, here are some specific factors to take into account before staying the course or jumping into the full-time world.

Real-life scenarios
I have a friend, Tim, who has floated in the SAP world almost since the technology broke in the United States in the mid 1990s. He’s in his mid-30s, has a wife and children, and has been a road warrior in the Midwest.

During his consulting career, he’s kept his family close, living in apartments for a year at a time while he worked, before picking up to move to another locale.

That worked when his children were young, but the kids are school age now, and he’s gone from the family for long stretches at a time. The extra money that comes with consulting is being eaten up by travel time and costs to be home as much as possible.

Tim wants to settle down so that he can have more family time, but he believes an in-house position would be a slow death full of work monotony and no challenges.

It’s the same fear that another consulting colleague, Aaron, has long held. A bit younger than Tim, the 28-year-old single consultant is eager to establish himself in the world of PeopleSoft. Whatever the virtues of the full-time gig may offer, he’s still most interested in soaking up the most diverse range of implementation experiences on his chosen platform that he possibly can.

In talking with Tim, I recommended he seriously consider a full-time job. For Aaron, as he’s not dealing with travel and family requirements, remaining in consulting is the right decision for him.

Factors to consider
In making my recommendations to both Tim and Aaron, I evaluated their professional needs, personal needs, as well as what full-time work provides today—which is quite different from just a few years ago.

In the end, though, they each had to examine the pros and cons of both consulting and full-time work and take the career path that suited them best. The factors to consider when pondering a switch to full-time work include:

Steady pay
The salary you’ll draw as a full-time employee won’t be as much as the fees you command when doing a consulting gig, but it will be respectable. For a newcomer, a typical drop might be from $80k-plus to around $60k. For a veteran, it’s more like $120k-plus to $90k or so, depending on years of experience.

One thing to take into account is the benefits that ride alongside full-time employment. For example, most consultants have at least a few weeks of down time every year, during which they make nothing at all as opposed to full-time employees who get paid vacations. If you factor this in, then the drop in pay compared to taking an annual salary isn’t so much.

Job security
Job security isn’t what it used to be. The idea of a company taking care of its people from cradle to grave no longer exists in this new century. You could find yourself downsized at any time, no matter who you work for.

On the other hand, IT is an increasingly essential unit of any business, and IT personnel with strong training and experience are seldom anywhere near the chopping block. So no matter how you slice it, there is more security in a staff position than floating through the world as a consultant.

Additional hidden benefits
While salary and security are essential elements to consider in evaluating a career switch to a full-time gig, there are also a slew of other aspects to consider.

For one thing, in-house technical diversity and training are better than ever, and the one-time fear of being locked into a niche or specialty isn’t valid any longer.

One reason IT professionals get into consulting in the first place is the diversity it offers. If you’re a typical IT consultant, you have an array of strong, cutting-edge skills. You’re not an isolated specialist because the marketplace requires that you have real breadth of knowledge. Even the most entrenched consultant (for example, an SAP R/3 specialist in the MM module), packs an arsenal of strong peripheral skills, such as ABAP/4 programming knowledge, a robust knowledge of database design, and lots of IDoc/ALE experience.

Most consultants have shied away from an in-house staff position in the past because they thought they would have to give up the diversity they craved. The full-time gig looked like a world of sameness—the same systems, the same tools, and the same design procedures.

But it isn’t like that any more, or at least not nearly to the degree that it used to be. It is now the age of the distributed system, the era of company partnering and application-sharing. Any sizable company is going to be implementing ERP, if it hasn’t already, and that means process re-engineering, distributed apps, and B2B—equaling a whole host of new technologies and shared resources that will make your technical platform diverse, exciting, and even daunting.

Moreover, companies are very willing to train these days. There’s a lot more emphasis on the importance of training and retaining IT personnel who understand the highly integrated direction of IT platforms and process development. Classes that full-time employees once paid for are now part of the employment package with most companies.

It’s all about a team approach. More than ever, process re-engineering, deployment of ERP, and the rapid development of distributed applications are team phenomena. The sheer complexity of these tasks, the range of skills required, and the tight timeframes within which systems must be tested and implemented require finely developed team dynamics.

As a consultant, you may have experienced a bit of this, but somewhat peripherally. As a staffer, you would work more closely with your colleagues than you ever have before, and bring to bear an entirely new set of skills in forging the cooperation and mutual support required by the rapid development environment.

No set answers
The reasons above all make a good case for moving to full-time work, but in the end, what’s right for you is right for you. Only you can decide whether the motivations are compelling in your particular case. Just be sure to take time to examine all your options and all the factors. A hasty decision of this caliber could do more harm than good.