Ahead of the Curve: IT staff contract to nowhere

An ugly truth about the IT job market is that opportunists too often dominate it. Honest employers and job candidates suffer because they're forced to compete with cutthroats. Black hat employers see workers through the lens of the recession -- as property to be loaded, spent, and replaced like rounds in a Gatling gun. Black hat workers see themselves through the lens of the dot-com heyday -- demigods who could write their own tickets with junior college skills.

Plus, there's one group that capitalizes on supplying these jackasses with the means to live out their fantasies: employment agencies. I'm not damning all of them, just the boiler-room operations where staff changes faster than the seasons and where the brass ring is churning candidates through as many positions in as short a time as possible.

A greedy agency doesn't work for employers. It works for itself. When the ideal worker who was born to work for you applies for the job you've listed, he or she becomes real estate. If the agency decides that your prospect would be more profitable to rent than to sell, you might never know the worker put in for your position. Renting doesn't mean contracting; that's honest business. It means contract-to-hire.

Never heard of it? Well, you're missing out on the most wonderful thing since child labor. Agencies and employers use the contract-to-hire scam to pull in top-rung permanent workers with the promise that if they prove themselves worthy during the contract period -- it's described as a sort of probation -- there's a good chance they'll be hired. That good chance is next to no chance, but a worker who isn't wise to the scheme will sweat blood, volunteer unpaid overtime, and carry a company-issued cell phone to earn that upgrade to permanence.

A contract extension is held out as being one giant step closer to full employment. It's actually a sure sign that there is no permanent position, but so what? The employer managed to sidestep having to renegotiate the contract because, ho-ho, a contract-to-hire doesn't realize he or she is a temp. Benefits? Taxes? Paid overtime? Contract pay scale? That's for chumps.

If you're an employer who's not in the contract-to-hire game, bless you, but it affects you just the same. The best, most excited, and most hopeful talent in the workforce is getting siphoned out of the permanent job market and re-used until they get wise or burn out. Workers who can't be churned, either because they're wise to the scheme or they're just not that good, get sent out for permanent interviews, and there are many times more of the latter than the former. Any agency that operates or has close ties with body shops (contract brokers) has a direct conflict of interest that works against employers.

Good people and good employers are out there in more than satisfactory numbers. If employers want those good people, the surest way to get them is to list and interview for positions themselves. Workers searching for work already know direct listings are preferable. Specialized agencies with low turnover are well worth their higher fees, but they're not common.

An employer who uses boiler-room agencies to look for help misses out on prime prospects, and can end up with the agency's dregs: joyless workers who came your way only after being run once too often through the agency's soak cycle. But then, if you use contract-to-hire, you get what you deserve.

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