Why It's Good to Be a Contract Employee

More companies embrace contract employment, some workers couldn't be happier.

ByABC News
September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

May 27, 2010 — -- The other day, a friend who's halfway through a year-long contract as a technical editor said what today's temporary workforce is never supposed to say aloud:

"My boss keeps telling me she wants to bring me on permanently, but I'm not so sure I want that. It's funny how everybody assumes that's my goal."

Sure, my friend is thankful to have a decent-paying job this year, especially in the wake of her big, fat, soul-sucking layoff in 2008. But after a couple years of cobbling together a paycheck from various contract, part-time and freelance jobs, she's no longer sold on the sanctity of shacking up with one employer -- despite the promise of 401(k) matching and a group health care plan.

I can relate. I took my first contract job in 1998 and have yet to accept a temporary boss's offer of permanent work. Some of the staffers I've worked alongside have said, "Why don't you just do the permanent employee thing for five years, sock away a bunch of cash and then go goof off in soloville awhile?" But I prefer my freedom now, even if it means paying for my own vacation days and owning a smaller house than my employee counterparts.

Of course, there are legions of contract, temporary and freelance workers who couldn't agree less -- and dire news reports of the ever-growing number of malcontent temps prove it. They don't want to have to find a new job every three, six or 12 months or fund their own health insurance premiums. Real or imagined, they long for the uniformity of one boss, one corporate culture, one employee manual year after year.

Entirely understandable. But in the decade-plus I've worked as a contract employee and freelancer, I've encountered many content temps who agree that contract work has its undeniable perks. Between the autonomy, flexibility and variety, many of the nation's 10.3 million independent contractors have no intention of returning to staff work any time soon. Here's why.

A Life Outside the Office

Ask a contract worker what they like most about their lack of employee status and among their top reasons you'll likely hear include "It gives me more control over my schedule," "I have more time to travel/raise my kids/work on launching my own business" or "My work/life balance is through the roof."

"Some people crave a routine with rules and parameters that when it's 5 p.m., work is done for the day regardless of if the job is finished," said Klint Briney, a marketing contractor based in West Palm Beach, Florida. "I'd prefer to finish the job and start the following day late or get off early the next day."

Enjoying more than the standard one to two weeks of vacation time a year is a big draw as well. Many content temps use the time between multi-month contracts to travel.

"If I want to take six weeks' vacation, I can," said Debbie Brannigan from Portland, Oregon, who's worked as a contract engineer for more than two decades. "I don't need to wait until I've got my designated length of service in or have to work it into a company calendar and get permission."

For Jenna Meister, an executive assistant from Los Angeles, temporary contract work offers a way to fund her wanderlust. In the past three years, she's spent significant chunks of time traveling through Central America, South America and Southeast Asia.

"Temping gives me the freedom to see the world on my own terms," said Meister, whose contract assignments have ranged from one day to six months. "You don't get that kind of freedom with a 'real' job, at least not without repercussions."

Sarah Kimmel from Lehi, Utah, uses the aforementioned freedom for another pursuit: raising her two young children.

"A full time job doesn't currently work into my life," said Kimmel, who telecommutes to her 20-hour-a-week contract position as an IT manager and gets health insurance through her husband's job. "I have to have a part-time job that I do from home."

Another perk of contract work: the ability to bypass staff meetings, annual reviews and the usual office melodrama. Instead you can focus on the work you were hired to do and get the heck out of the office at a reasonable hour.

"I don't have to go to all the company meetings and all the morale junk," my technical editor friend said of her full-time contract job. "They just had this one rah-rah meeting that was three hours long and I thought, 'Thank god I don't have to go.'"

Allison Grace, an HR professional in Charlotte, North Carolina, found leaving her 15 years as an employee for contract and project-based work equally liberating.

"It was like a switch went off in my head and I immediately switched from employee mode to contractor mode," she said. "I wasn't bothered as much by the nonsense going on in the office and the office politics. There is almost a feeling of being able to rise above it all and not get mired down in it, which I really enjoy."

As an added bonus, some contractors claim this limited in engagement in the theatrics of the workplace has done wonders for their stress level.

"I feel a lot less pressure than I used to as a full-time employee," said Cari Goodrich, a Palo Alto, California, publicist on a month-to-month contract with a technology firm. "I can be as successful as I want or I can be as unsuccessful as I want. It's made work so much more enjoyable."

For Some, a Way to Boost Pay

It's well-known that contract workers don't share the same corporate benefits as their employee counterparts. Some who work through employment agencies earn a handful of paid days off a year or have the option to buy into a group health insurance plan. Some even receive modest 401(k) matching. Most, however, get zip in the benefits department.

While a hardship for some contractors (especially those earning a low hourly rate or saddled with health concerns that could shut them out of the individual insurance market), others say their hourly rate more than makes up for the lack of employer-subsidized benefits.

"I have had many employers offer me full-time, on-staff positions, but I prefer to remain a contractor," Brannigan said. "The main reason is the money. Contract engineers make approximately twice the amount of staff engineers. I am single with no dependents, so I really don't need the benefits and prefer the cash."

"Last year, I took six weeks of vacation and still made more money than [a] full-time psychiatrist," said Dawnmarie Risley, a contract psychiatrist who works with inmates at a prison in Fresno, California "Sure, I don't have health care from my employer, but individual insurance is only about $300 per month. With the money I make as a contractor, it more than pays for my benefits."

For Ashley Schwartau, a graphic artist and video editor in Nashville, working as a contractor offers another financial reward her salaried counterparts don't reap.

"I get paid for every hour I work," she said. "While I don't get overtime, I also don't get screwed by having to work 60 hours and only get paid for 40."

For workers who bore easily or fear growing stagnant -- or worse, getting pigeonholed -- hopping from contract to contract offers the perfect antidote."I enjoy moving around," said Brannigan, the engineer. "I tend to take a new [contract] job every three years and get an adrenaline rush from going to a new state, a new job site and meeting new people. This helps to build my skill set, as I don't sit at the same job, doing the same thing for very long."

And Meister, the executive assistant, finds contract work a fantastic way to sample and gain experience in an assortment of industries.

"I've spent time at hedge funds, consulting firms, investment banks, public relations firms, action sports companies, a national home builder and the corporate headquarters of the Hilton Hotels Corporation," she said. "Everything is always new. There's always a new learning curve, adjusting to the culture and processes. I'm rarely bored."

A Shot at Job Security -- Yes, Really

If there's one thing the dastardly recession we're currently clawing out way back from has proven, it's that working as a contractor is no less secure than working as an employee. In the land of layoffs, everyone's fair game now. And in the world of contracting, you quickly learn how to stay relevant, nimble and imminently employable -- or you don't eat.

"I've been contracting for 26 years and have never been laid off," Brannigan said. "I find it to be much more secure than staying as a direct staff somewhere and getting laid off with no idea how to find work elsewhere."

People who still think the road to job security is paved with staff positions are missing out on one of the best-kept secrets of contracting: once you become adept at drumming up new work every few months or quarters, you stop fearing the almighty pink slip.

Instead, you cultivate industry contacts like nobody's business and keep a constant ear to the ground for fresh opportunities, should the need for a new position arise sooner than you expect. And you no longer need to read books and articles giving job hunting advice because looking for work becomes as natural as breathing.