Freelance Employment - An Introduction to Life outside the Corporation
Working for one corporation is not the only way to have a professional engineering career. You can succeed as an independent consultant, contractor, or temporary employee.
If you are considering leaving a permanent job to become a consultant, temp, or contract employee, or if you have been forced to consider this form of work, this site should serve as an introduction, with links to sites with further information.
What types of work can be done outside of the corporate structure?
Two common forms of working relationships for independent professionals are consulting and contract employment:
Typically a consultant brings specific expertise to help his or her client. The consultant may charge by the hour or day, or may quote and charge a specified amount for a defined project or some combination. A consultant may spend a long time with just one client or may have multiple clients, scheduling his time between them. Typically the consult will work directly for the client. He will receive a purchase order from the client's purchasing department, perform the work, invoice the client, and receive a check. It is up to the consultant to provide all required insurance and pay income and self-employment (social security) tax, usually on a quarterly estimated basis.
The contract employee works for a corporation for the duration of a specific project or for as long as the employee is needed by the company and desires to work for the company. Typically, but not always, the contract employee (also known as a temp) works for a temporary service agency (agency or shop) that provides the service to the client (actual workplace). The agency will pay the contractor an hourly rate, and charge the client an amount to cover cost, any taxes or insurance paid, and some profit.
Between the two extremes
Actually, there is a broad range of situations, with the truly independent consultant at one extreme and the "perma-temp" (long term contract employee who expects, and is expected to, work at one company for many years.) In between are consultants who perform many projects for the same client, short term contract employees who "sign on" for specific projects, and longer term but not permanent contract employees. There is not a real distinction between consultants and contract employees. Often one person will work for in a mix of situations. For example, a person may have a long term contract through an agency for one client, and then use time off or weekends to do consulting work for another client (as long as there is no conflict of interest).
Why would someone rather work solo than as a career corporate employee?
There are several reasons. Of course, some people had no choice. They were "downsized" by their corporate employers and could not find a comparable job in the location they preferred to live. Others have found that they could make more money outside the corporate structure. Some people prefer more variety in their work, or more independence in their career paths.
As a consultant you are a small business owner, and entrepreneur, running your own business. You can decide the direction of your career and take on work and projects that interest you.
A major reason for working as a contract professional is to avoid relocating families when job locations change. For example, suppose your job in one area ends, you cannot find another acceptable job in that location, and your family does not want to relocate to another area (spouse's employment, kids in school, proximity to other family members, etc.). It may be very difficult to find a direct, permanent job in another location at a salary that will support the ability to maintain lodging in the other location and travel back and forth between home and work. However, it is more common to find contract employment that will allow you to afford to work away from home. Working away from home and visiting family only on weekends and holidays is certainly less desirable than seeing your family every evening after work, but for many families the only available choices are weekdays away from home or uprooting families, changing schools, and interrupting a spouses career any time a job requires relocation.
There are some people, of course, who are able to find consulting clients or temporary contract employment in the city where they live, having the luck of combining the best of both worlds.
Who should consider solo work?
While the corporate environment does not offer the security that it once did, there still is some stability in such a job. Although many people find themselves laid off each year, far more are able to keep their jobs. And in most cases, a professional employee who is laid off will receive severance pay and benefits that will provide a buffer and time to find another job.
To work in the "contingent workforce" someone should be in a sound financial position. Before deliberately jumping from the security of a "real job" to solo work, you should be out of debt (except perhaps a mortgage) and have a financial cushion. Severance pay from a layoff has provide the cushion for many solo workers. Of course, having a spouse with a good job also helps.
Experience is also important, particularly at the consulting end of the spectrum. This experience can be gained while in full time employment or while working as a contract employee.