Considering a Consulting Career

An individual nearing retirement. A busy professional who wants a better work/life balance. A person seeking a greater variety of assignments. What do these workers have in common? They all could find project work and consulting a beneficial career choice.

As the economy continues to improve and organizations invest in technology again, job opportunities for IT professionals are increasing. Companies are especially interested in adding contract and project staff to avoid overhiring in the event that business expansion slows. According to the American Staffing Association (ASA), an average of 2.55 million people worked on a temporary or contract basis in 2004. On any given day, that's about one out of every 11 nonfarm workers. And the industry keeps growing. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that more jobs will be created in personnel supply services, which includes temporary staffing, than in any other industry this decade.

Why are so many people considering a consulting career? Here are some benefits this path offers:

Flexibility. One of the primary reasons professionals pursue project work is because it affords them the flexibility to fulfill obligations outside the office. Consultants can decide which assignments to accept and decline, adjusting their schedules depending on their priorities. For IT professionals who were asked to take on additional roles during the downturn, becoming a consultant could be an effective method of regaining a healthy work/life balance. Members of the so-called sandwich generation -- individuals who must care for their children and elderly relatives -- can also benefit from temporary work because it allows them the flexibility to meet mounting family obligations. And a consulting career is often ideal for those nearing retirement age who wish to enjoy leisurely pursuits while remaining active workers and maintaining a source of income.

Avenues for skills enhancement. Consulting can be a great way to learn about new technologies. As a consultant, you may be exposed to hardware and software that you wouldn't if you worked for a single employer. One client may tap your Windows expertise while another requires your Unix knowledge, thereby enhancing your experience with both platforms. Because of the diversity of projects you tackle, you can broaden your skill set and increase your marketability. According to the ASA, 70% of consultants said they have gained new skills through their assignments.

A variety of assignments. Consulting allows IT professionals to work within a variety of businesses and industries. You might help a small financial services firm with a systems installation, then work for a large construction company on network security issues. For individuals just entering the workforce and those looking to switch careers, being able to explore a field of interest before making a full commitment is invaluable when determining which path best matches their interests and abilities. You may discover that you prefer working for small organizations where the impact of your contributions is most noticeable, for example, or that you do not enjoy the entertainment field as much as you thought you would. In addition, working on projects in variety of businesses will expose you to other professionals who may be able to provide you with career guidance and serve as key additions to your professional network.

Opportunities for full-time work. Project assignments often lead to offers of full-time employment. Many hiring managers view a contract engagement as an extended interview, during which they can assess a potential employee's on-the-job performance and fit within the organization. In a survey commissioned by Robert Half Technology, 63% of CIOs said it's beneficial for potential hires to work on a project or contract basis before being extended a full-time offer.

Becoming a Consultant

Though consulting can be an attractive career option for many IT professionals, it's a significant professional move and deserves serious consideration. Ask yourself the following questions before you decide to pursue this path:

Do I have the necessary skills? While you don't have to be the world's leading expert in a certain technology to succeed, you do need to have experience in a marketable technology. For example, firms are currently increasing their investment in wireless applications as they realize the potential benefits of mobile technologies, leading to a demand for IT staff with wireless network management expertise. Consult industry publications and consider joining a local professional association to determine which skills employers in your area look for and how yours compare with those of other job seekers.

Do I prefer consistency or constant change? Because you will likely have a wide range of clients as a consultant, you must be able to adapt well to new work environments and corporate cultures. You need to be sensitive to the unique requirements of each organization and adjust your work style accordingly. If you instead prefer the stability and predictability of working for a single employer, a consulting career may not be right for you.

Should I work for a staffing firm or go it alone? Consultants can either be self-employed and secure engagements themselves or register with a staffing firm, which locates assignments for them. Many staffing firms offer benefits, including health insurance, technical and professional training, vacation and holiday pay, and bonuses. They also take care of administrative functions, such as marketing, lead generation, billing and the like, so consultants can focus their entire attention on IT.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a large percentage of project workers prefer their status to traditional assignments. Evaluate your interests, strengths and goals, and solicit input from trusted advisers to determine whether a consulting career is right for you.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe and offers online job search services at

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