Tech workers: Ready to be a free agent?

Having the right technical skills is only half the battle for an IT contractor in tough economic times

In these uncertain times, who isn't worried about job security? There are ominous signs aplenty: tech projects put on the chopping block, layoffs looming, and spotty full-time hiring opportunities on job boards. It's good to have a backup plan in case you're let go, and one plan is to prepare yourself to be a free agent.

A free agent has many names, among them "freelancer," "contractor," "temp," "consultant," and "contingency worker." Basically, all mean the same thing: working without the benefits or obligations of a full-time staffer.

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Of course, free agents aren't in any better position than full-time employees during a downturn. Research firm Staffing Industry Analysts projects zero growth in IT staffing this year and a contraction of 5 percent in 2009. In fact, given that it's much less traumatic to cut contractors than to lay off regular employees, free agents will be among the first to be fired, says Barry Asin, chief analyst at Staffing Industry Analysts. Generally speaking, companies don't replace full-time employees with contingent ones, he adds.

Until the economy recovers, that is. On the upswing, free agents will be in more demand than their full-time counterparts, as companies typically use contractors to hedge their bets against a sudden market upswing going sour. This means IT workers facing potential layoffs should consider preparing for life as a free agent now in hopes of finding work in the future.

"The reason to have skilled temps is to protect a company against uncertainty, because typically temps -- at least in professional skills -- are more expensive on an hourly basis than traditional employees," Asin says. "When things start to improve, temp workers will be the first hired."

Making the case for free agency

Job market improvement, at least for technical work, may come sooner than you think. In fact, staffing firm Robert Half Technology (RHT) doesn't share Staffing Industry Analysts' gloomy job market outlook. In an RHT survey released last month of 1,400 CIOs, 11 percent said they expect to add staff in the fourth quarter of this year, whereas only 3 percent forecast personnel reductions.

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