Contract Work Should Not Be Viewed as a Dead End

April 1, 2014 Julia Woods

Contract Work Should Not Be Viewed as a Dead End

By Julia Woods, Principal, Career Solutions, Knightsbridge

Contract EmploymentThe vice president of finance at a large, national manufacturing company decided to take a year off to have a baby. She negotiated her leave, and looked forward to both motherhood and, eventually, returning to a job she loved.

Unfortunately, while on maternity leave the company restructured and she was left without a job to go back to. The shock turned to panic: what in the world was she going to do when it was time to go back to work?

Accustomed to a steady, permanent job with all of the wage and benefit trimmings, she eventually decided that getting back into the work world was the priority. Even if that meant taking a short-term contract, something she never would have considered before.

That opportunity arose fairly quickly: a three-month contract as the right-hand to a CEO for a new company in a completely different industry. In this scenario, the contract was a win-win – a great opportunity for an executive looking to get back into the game, and a chance for a new company to test-drive a proven leader to see if she was a good fit.

More and more executives today are living that anecdote. The reality is job security isn’t what it used to be. Restructuring, downsizing and radical, rapid change have forced many talented executives to challenge preconceived notions about how they earn a living. It’s even forcing some of them to consider something they would have previously dismissed: the short-term contract.

At one time, taking a contract position was seen as a career limiting move, taken by those who couldn’t find a permanent position. Now, contract positions represent exciting, even lucrative opportunities for executives who want, or need, to find new challenges.

These are job opportunities that, by their very nature, need to be filled quickly. Although it can take, on average, up to five months to find another permanent job, contract positions need to be filled generally in one to two weeks after identifying a need – especially if the contractor is needed to fill in for an executive on leave or sabbatical.

It is, however, not for everyone. Who are the leading candidates for interim assignments? From the organization’s stance, they are executives who have:

An ability to hit the ground running. In some cases, previous experience will allow an interim executive to move seamlessly into a new organization operating within the same industry. No lengthy onboarding, no prolonged training. The right executive can be an immediate source of expertise.

Tolerance for change and innovation. Successful interim executives must be willing to endure a high level of change. There is no way to get around the fact that a short-term contract is a little bit like being the new kid at a new school – you’ll have to go in with no prior relationships or intel about the people you’re working with. It’s a dynamic environment, but not for the faint of heart.

Flexibility to move quickly. Many downsized or restructured executives see great value in short-term contracts because it allows them to stay in the game and continue building a resume. And given the amount of change in today’s economy, restructuring or downsizing no longer carries the stigma it once did.

Older executives who are looking for a new challenge, or mid-career executives who have the financial support of an employed partner, are likely to make the easiest transition to interim assignments. Simply put, these are people who can afford to forgo the steady security and benefits of a permanent position. This means they are ripe to take on a more dynamic, flexible engagement.

At the same time, are there people who make bad candidates for contract work? Sometimes it’s not a good idea to begin your career with a heavy reliance on contracts. Many human resource professionals will tell you that younger executive candidates who have relied too heavily on contracts may carry a stigma when it comes down to hiring decisions regarding permanent positions.

It’s important for anyone relying on contract work to be able to explain why they are doing it, and why they are not looking for a permanent job. In many cases, successful interim positions transition into permanent positions; many employers find that they gain a level of insight into a candidate through a contract that they could never achieve in an interview.

But for those engaged in interim assignments until a permanent job comes along, it will be impossible to make that transition unless the candidate is able to provide a viable explanation about why the contract work was undertaken in the first place.

The short-term executive contract no longer carries the stigma it once did. It’s an essential element in an organization’s human resource arsenal. It can provide an employer with valuable expertise and knowledge at a moment’s notice, while providing the executive with an exciting opportunity that simply cannot be matched by a permanent position. 

About the Author

Julia Woods

Julia Woods is a Principal with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge in Markham. Julia’s deep experience in senior corporate roles coupled with her strong background in executive recruiting allows her to provide unique consulting services to both organizations seeking to optimize their investment in human capital, as well as to executives in transition often exploring career shifts.

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