By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman
While freelancing offers numerous advantages over traditional full-time employment, some engineers lack the confidence or know-how to manage their own careers. As Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered back in 2002, engineers often rely on their managers for career coaching, guidance and support.
Don’t let fear stop you from pursuing an empowering freelance vocation. Use our five proven strategies to launch, manage and grow a successful career as a contract engineering professional.
Develop a Niche
While it may seem counterintuitive to limit your market reach, engineering managers most value results. Therefore, developing a specialty or niche that delivers powerful outcomes is an effective way to build your reputation and ensure a consistent demand for your services.
“It’s important to understand what engineering managers value and deliver that to them,” said Anthony Fasano PE, CEO and founder of Powerful Purpose Associates (also known as The Engineering Career Coach).
“It could be a special certification, engineering process or tool,” he explained. “Addressing managers’ unmet or pressing needs in a unique way will give you a strategic advantage over the hundreds of other contractors in your discipline.”
A market-driven niche not only creates focus and brand distinction, it may give you the power to charge a premium for your services once engineering managers get a taste of what you can do for them.
Establish a Schedule and Annual Goals
Time is valuable in any business, but to an engineer who bills by the hour or project, it’s pure gold. Contractors need exceptional time management skills to balance engineering work with marketing and promotional activities, career development endeavors, financial planning and business management tasks.
“Contractors need to turn around proposals quickly, jump on inquiries from recruiters and clients, and carve out enough time to attend seminars and continuing education courses,” Fasano said.
A free app or tool (such as these for time management), or a good, old fashioned to-do list may be all you need to multi-task, prioritize activities and allocate your time.
When you’re your own boss, you have the ability to dream big when you set your annual goals and career development plan (here’s a nice guide to creating a career development plan). Naturally, you’ll want to include activities that will enhance your marketability, such as honing your soft skills or learning a new project management program or foreign language. But perhaps you’ve always wanted to manage an offshore team, acquire global experience or become a recognized leader by blogging or tweeting about your engineering adventures. The sky’s the limit for freelancers, so set your goals as high as you dare.
Build your reputation and client base by weaving your specialized skills, knowledge and expertise into your brand and marketing strategies. Contractors should devote about 5 percent of their time to high-leverage marketing activities that maximize their efforts and increase their visibility, according to Fasano. Examples include speaking at conferences, leading discussions on LinkedIn, updating your online portfolio and networking with powerful engineering managers and recruiters. Seth Godin says that freelancers “need to spend at least half their time getting better at their craft (and helping the market understand and appreciate what they do).”
Stay Ahead of the Curve
To maintain a viable career, contractors need to keep an eye on the future. Where are things headed in your discipline? Which skills will be needed in the next two years? Will engineering firms adopt new tools or be impacted by changing regulations? Stay abreast of emerging developments by subscribing to newsletters, using an RSS feed, attending webinars and following industry movers and shakers on social media, such as LinkedIn and Twitter.
How can you make yourself indispensable? Exceeding the expectations of engineering managers is the best way to earn a loyal following, endorsements, referrals and additional contract assignments. Once you get established, use your knowledge of current trends, your niche and your experience in the marketplace to pitch ideas and suggestions to engineering managers for current or future projects.
While success is certainly not guaranteed, engineering managers desperately need a pool of talented contract professionals to meet project demands. If you’re willing to seize control of your career, there’s no reason why it can’t be you.
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