By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman
Technical competence alone won’t advance your career. You need experience with a variety of projects, a take-charge attitude, and a network of influential contacts to become a recognized expert, manager or owner-partner at an engineering firm. But it can take years to amass experience in these areas as a regular employee.
Becoming a contractor can accelerate your learning curve and broaden your horizons. Here are five ways that contracting can turbo-charge your engineering career.
No. 1: Contracting Broadens Your Technical Skills
Full-time engineers are often assigned to a single project or client for years at a time. At some point, they hit a ceiling and their skills become stale.
Contractors, on the other hand, are constantly exposed to different projects and new problems. You have the opportunity to test out other industry sectors, expand your resume and develop new relationships as you move from assignment to assignment. Having broader skills and wide-ranging project experience can make you more attractive to employers, whether you decide to continue contracting or return to full-time employment.
No. 2: Contracting Develops Your Business Acumen
A lack of business acumen can stall your career, as Gary Hinkle points out in this article for IEEE. Business acumen positions you for management because it teaches you to view engineering challenges with a business perspective, and deal with issues in a way that is likely to produce a positive financial outcome.
“Do you know how to spot high-value opportunities to suggest actual improvements – tactical, measurable changes to implement – not just ideas?” Hinkle asks. After all, you can’t become a member of the C-suite unless you understand how a business operates. Contract roles broaden your perspective and help you identify the links between your efforts and the bottom line.
No. 3: Contracting Forces You to Think and Act Like an Owner
To move up the ladder and achieve financial success, you must function and act like an owner and not just a doer. Becoming a contractor forces you to take charge of your career, your professional development and your projects. Over time, your independent status will increase your self-reliance and self-confidence.
No. 4: Contracting Expands Your Network
Whether you aspire to become a rainmaker or technical lead, having client contacts and relationships can help you get there. As Anthony Fasano notes in “Engineer Your Own Success: 7 Key Elements to Creating an Extraordinary Engineering Career, “Make no mistake about it, bringing new work into your firm is the fastest way to advance your engineering career.”
Traveling from project to project, you’ll meet new people, expand your professional reputation and network and earn the trust of influential clients. As Fasano says: “Being the person that clients want on the job, or the reason they retained the firm, makes you a linchpin, a vital person.” Just think what being a “linchpin” can do for your marketability and negotiating power.
No 5: Contracting Helps You Become a Leader
Promotions result from a combination of stellar performance over time and demonstrating competence with core leadership skills, according to John Beeson, writing for Harvard Business Review.
Beeson’s examples of leadership qualities include strategic thinking, and the ability to ensure execution without getting pulled down to too low a level of detail. Leadership also includes the ability to inspire innovation, influence/persuade others, and get things done across organizational lines.
Some engineering jobs are so focused on execution that it’s practically impossible to demonstrate your strategic ability. Or, you may be locked into a production role that limits your opportunity to lead or influence others. If your current position is holding you back, becoming a contractor can position you as an external guru and give you the chance to hone your leadership skills. The fact that great leaders are made, not born, could be the most important reason for engineers to consider a move into contracting.
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