Advancing

Consultant Isn’t a Dirty Word

consulting

I’m always surprised when people tell me they’re “just” doing consulting or contract work for now, while they’re between jobs or re-entering the work force after doing something else for a while (…like raising kids, spending time at an ashram, building a school in Haiti, saving the whales, or some other “close to the heart” pursuit…you name it)

Usually, when I ask what type of projects they’re actually handling, it’s high-level work, like acting as an outsourced CFO or doing senior level marketing projects.

These professionals let the fact that they’re not permanent full-timers with benefits diminish their sense of making a valuable contribution. They seem to view themselves as a small step above unemployed.

That’s a big mistake. What these consultants actually are, in many cases, are elite, highly knowledgeable experts whom giant corporations trust to solve their biggest problems. The fact that these companies don’t have the budget to hire them for a permanent job at the moment does not diminish these consultants’ contributions.

If you share this reluctant mindset about consulting/contract work, it’s time to change your perspective. Many big companies have embraced hiring consultants because they need more flexibility in an increasingly  digital, global marketplace. Several recent studies show that hiring contingent workers such as consultants, freelancers and contractors will only increase in coming decades. People who make this trend work in their favor are going to be much happier than those who hang onto the past, where most jobs were traditional ones.

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of wanting a “permanent,” full-time job with benefits. Many people feel more secure getting a steady paycheck from a big organization than being self-employed—and no one can deny that corporate health insurance and 401(k) plans are valuable.

Nonetheless, ruling out alternative types of work arrangements—or looking at them as lower in status—can close you off to very interesting career opportunities that can take your career to even higher levels. Many consultants bring in the equivalent of a full-time salary and can afford to pay for their own benefits, especially if they serve several clients at a time.

The key to making the trend toward contingent hiring work in your favor is to view yourself as a business owner—not an employee—from the moment you accept your first project.  Put up a simple website and market your services through agencies and online marketplaces for people in your field. Don’t look at your first consulting engagement as a surrogate job. It’s not a job—and it can end at any moment. Acknowledge that fact by building a steady pipeline of other options, even if you’re fully occupied at the moment, so you’re not on the verge of going broke if an engagement dries up.

What if your ultimate goal is to get a full-time job—and not to remain a consultant? Doing consulting work for big companies is a good way to get to know the management team and make a positive impression, so you are top of mind when positions open up. If they see that you are running a thriving business, they will know that you have the potential to attract new clients for them, as well.

Of course, you need to be strategic about the consulting projects you accept. Look for projects with well-known organizations that will help you win other clients, impress future employers or add to your repertoire of marketable skills. And spend some time talking with other consultants to find out the market rate for those with your skills, so you don’t under-price your services and end up feeling exploited and resentful.

Doing consulting work is a way to put yourself in charge of your career—but only if you view it that way!

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.