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Introduction

The Changing Workplace

The Future of Contracting

Contract vs. Permanent Work

What Does it Take to be a Contract Writer?

Ten Cardinal Rules of Contracting

Contracting vs. Permanent Employment

by Pamela J. Cole © 1995 Pamela Cole

NOTE: An updated version of this paper and more is now available in The Amazing World of Technical Writing by Pamela Cole.

Abstract

More and more companies are hiring contract technical writers to fill in the short-term gaps in documentation often created by rapid technology advancement. And more and more technical writers are choosing to become contractors as this need increases. What are the benefits and disadvantages of becoming a contractor? What type of technical writer can handle the switch from the relative security of full-time employment to the risks and pitfalls of freelancing?

This paper discusses the pros and cons of contracting and permanent employment based on my own experience.

INTRODUCTION

This is the information age, exploding at rates so quickly that technical writers can barely keep up with the documentation requirements of the software and hardware industry. In 1995, the Society of Technical Communicators (STC) had over 20,000 members in the United States and Canada, which probably doesnít account for half of all technical writers. The average salary for a technical writer with eight years experience and a four-year degree is currently $42,469 a year, according to the STC 1995 Technical Communicator Salary Survey.

At this time, many technical writers are faced with a decision about their career: whether to continue, or embark, on a career as a permanent employee with a well established company; or to launch off on their own into the growing sea of independent contract technical writers. The opportunities for both choices are currently abundant.

For some, it is a simple obvious choice; for others it is not. Ultimately, the choice depends on the personality type of the individual. The good news is that you donít have to make the choice and live with it for the rest of your life. Most contract writers have spent some time as permanent technical writers and vice versa. There is no law that says you canít do both in your career.

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THE CHANGING WORKPLACE

It is the changing workplace of the last twenty years that has largely forged this road in contracting opportunities. It is no secret to anyone that corporations no longer feel obligated to provide a "family" of employees with a lifetime of employment security. In fact, the downsizing and restructuring trends being followed by corporations in an effort to cut costs and respond to manufacturing automation have created a sense of growing insecurity and low morale among permanent employees.

I have been through corporate restructuring at every company I have contracted for in the last five years, oddly emerging unscathed while permanent employees were axed all around me. This illustrates the fact that: 1) contractors are cheaper to keep than permanent employees despite the fact that they earn a higher salary, and 2) companies are retaining employees who are the most valuable to the current short-term development. A permanent employee who has been on board for ten years working on the same project may not be as valuable to a company as a contractor who has a wide variety of experience and knowledge of the latest in software/hardware development. (Not surprisingly, permanent technical writers forced out of work by reorganization sometimes go on to more lucrative careers as contractors.)

According to Michael K. Gilfillan, author of Atlantaís Project Based Computer Jobs:

"The employment process has shifted. Companies are no longer guaranteeing permanent positions for the working life of an employee. Company loyalty means little in these extremely competitive days of global economies. The job opportunities that are offered to computer professionals are no longer restricted to permanent positions within an information department of a large company. Many permanent jobs have become project based positions." (1)

Contractors also serve as "buffers" in a time of downsizing. One human resource manager I spoke to said that contractors were valuable buffers in the hiring and firing involved in downsizing. Her company would cut long term contractors instead of permanent employees. This gave the permanent employees a feeling of security and caused little hard feelings among contractors who did not expect to remain with the company. This particular company used contractors for over 20% of their total workforce. This shows how contracting will remain a viable alternative to corporations as long as downsizing/restructuring is occurring.

In a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), several large corporations made the following statements about restructuring in their future:

  • 22% said it would continue to have a high impact in 1995
  • 63% said it would continue to have a moderate impact in 1995
  • 15% said it would have no impact in 1995

William J. Bettyas, M.S., made this comment about this survey:

"Put another way, 85% of the large companies surveyed indicated that downsizing would continue to be a factor in 1995. One wonders whether this trend will continue into the 21st century." (2)

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THE FUTURE OF CONTRACTING

One of the greatest drawbacks about being a contractor is the very real risk of not finding employment. In this way, being a contractor is no better than being a permanent employee in these trying times.

Or is it?

For much more information, please see The Amazing World of Technical Writing by Pamela Cole.

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