How to thrive in the coming tech gig economy

The rise of contract and contingent work is shaking up the traditional IT career path. Here’s how to navigate for success

How to thrive in the coming tech gig economy
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Disruptive technologies do more than shake up markets -- they drastically alter the way we work. And it’s not only nonstop cost cutting that has businesses favoring IT contractors they can bring on -- or scale back -- as necessary without paying benefits. Emerging platforms, in particular around the cloud, have many organizations shifting their staffing models toward project-based, contingent work in hopes of landing the key skills necessary for their businesses to stay competitive in a constantly evolving technical landscape.

In short, the days of decades-long careers in corporate environments may be dwindling for many IT pros, and while millennials coming of age in tomorrow’s gig-based tech employment market may be attracted to the idea of remote work for multiple clients -- as can be seen by the growth of co-working environments -- not everyone is prepared to embrace a nomadic future of career contingency.

How should you adjust to this shifting employment landscape? Should you broaden your skills or specialize? Should you develop a plan to strike out on your own or double-down on the skills that will remain invaluable for retaining long-term, full-time employment? Here we take a look at how tech staffing will evolve in the years ahead -- and how you can make the best of the shift.

The rise of contract work in IT

The pace of technical advancement in recent years is no doubt shaking up employment models for organizations large and small alike. Recruiting for skills that didn’t exist a few years ago has pushed companies toward hiring more contractors on a project basis. And the need to adopt new and emerging platforms quickly is affecting plucky startups and long-established tech firms to the extent that this rising dependence on contract work could become a near industry-wide norm in the not-too-distant future.

Rob Brimm, CEO, Fieldglass

“It’s important for companies to find the right talent, and today it’s certainly the norm to look to flexible workers.” — Rob Brimm, CEO, Fieldglass

“Experienced workers, who are able to jump into a project quickly, save a company valuable time and resources,” says Rob Brimm, the CEO of Fieldglass, a cloud-based vendor management system. “It’s important for companies to find the right talent, and today it’s certainly the norm to look to flexible workers.”

As evidence of this trend, Brimm notes a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that found 70 percent of financial services CEOs citing the availability of key skills as a top threat to their organizations. And most recruiters will tell you they see more demand for contract work among the employers they represent. But it’s not only the firms doing the hiring that are fueling the trend toward flexible employment relationships. To some degree the demand is coming from those seeking IT work as well.

“On the talent front, millennials are in a prime position for advancing contract work,” Jim Chou, CTO of Work Market, a marketplace for freelance work. “Popularized by the startup companies, they seek independence and freedom to work from wherever and whenever. Larger organizations are taking notice and adapting their policies to cater to this growing workforce demographic.”

Pilot projects and emerging platforms aren't the sole focus of this shift toward contract gigs, according to Chou.

“[We’re] also seeing more and more traditional work categories in IT being packaged into definable work tasks that can be performed by verified contract workers, and with their work measured and priced,” Chou says. “For example, in software testing, we see contract work where companies pay by the number of defects found. Others pay by the resulting algorithms, big data ETL created, or even by the IT trouble tickets fulfilled. We also observe that more and more young IT professionals are taking on projects outside of their workplace -- a twist to moonlighting.”

Doug Paulo, who leads Kelly Services’ IT staffing business, says these free agents prefer contract work because they can develop new skills and have more control over their schedules. They see themselves as entrepreneurs who are in it for the long haul.

Jim Chou, CTO, Work Market

“[We’re] also seeing more and more traditional work categories in IT being packaged into definable work tasks that can be performed by verified contract workers, and with their work measured and priced.” — Jim Chou, CTO, Work Market

“Employers need to be aware of this trend as they manage their talent supply chain,” Paulo says. “To continue to attract professional and technical candidates with the high level of expertise and diverse experience they need, employers will have to keep their doors open to just-in-time talent by offering the more flexible, nontraditional work arrangements that free agents are looking for.”

Skills test: Go deep or go broad

Long-term IT success has always hinged on keeping your skill set fresh, but with staffing mixes trending toward more contract-based work, and presumably fewer full-time gigs, what’s the best approach to developing a bulletproof set of IT skills? Should you dive deep into a certain area or develop a hybrid approach so that you’re able to wear many hats?

“I would focus on depth in a specific area like data mining or security and do my best to gain experience in a specific industry, such as financial services or automotive, for example,” says Margaret Gernert, research director at CDI Corp., an IT staffing services company. “Many of our clients want talent that has both technical skills and knowledge of their industry, which is why knowing your technical discipline and immersing yourself in it is required, but the vertical experience is becoming more and more essential -- it’s literally part of many of our clients’ job descriptions.”

Doug Paulo, Kelly Services

“To continue to attract professional and technical candidates with the high level of expertise and diverse experience they need, employers will have to keep their doors open to just-in-time talent by offering the more flexible, nontraditional work arrangements that free agents are looking for.” — Doug Paulo, Kelly Services

Gabe McDonald, senior vice president in Addison Group’s contract IT practice, says developing skills in a specific area not only makes you a more attractive hire, it also boosts your paycheck.

“The premium rates that accompany contract work are typically paid for people who are subject-matter experts,” McDonald says. “If you’re pursuing a role in development, I’d recommend mastering a specific language and keeping up-to-date with new versions, instead of expanding the number of languages you’re familiar with. Professionals who provide a more specialized expertise ultimately will secure the highest-paying, more sought-after roles.”

Kelly’s Paulo, however, argues that a broad set of skills can increase your options.

“Companies that are working leaner may appreciate having employees who are not steeped too deep in one area and can handle multiple types of projects.” But he points out that his firm’s own research suggests that IT pros themselves want to get specific when it comes to skill sets.

Margaret Gernert, research director, CDI Corp.

“Many of our clients want talent that has both technical skills and knowledge of their industry, which is why knowing your technical discipline and immersing yourself in it is required, but the vertical experience is becoming more and more essential.” — Margaret Gernert, research director, CDI Corp.

“IT professionals place a substantially higher emphasis on developing specific skills, with 25 percent citing that not having additional training would be a factor in leaving their existing employer,” Paulo says. “On the other hand, 66 percent cited training as a significant attraction factor to new opportunities or companies as opposed to 58 percent of the overall population. Because IT is a function that has a very high probability of working in virtual teams, the ability to work well with team members abroad is considered common, so deeper expertise receives a higher emphasis.”

Break out: Wolf pack or lone wolf?

If you're considering going on your own, you may wonder whether it’s better to go solo or work with a partner. Should you join up with another IT pro with a different skill set to increase your opportunities -- or is independence more important to you?

Kelly’s Paulo suggests going on your own is, well, more fun. “To be a true free agent and enjoy the flexibility the lifestyle affords, it would be more beneficial to go on your own,” Paulo says. “That way, you are more adept and able to be agile and seize opportunities quickly.”

Gabe McDonald, senior vice president, Addison Group

“Professionals who provide a more specialized expertise ultimately will secure the highest-paying, more sought-after roles.” — Gabe McDonald, senior vice president, Addison Group

But he recognizes working with a partner has benefits: “If you are starting your own business, having a partner can spread the risk and costs involved.”

Work Market’s Chou also sees the benefits of creating your own team, and he says it can ease the transition from full-time work.

“To mitigate the risk of the unknown that comes with going solo, it may make more sense to work with a partner when you're first starting out. This will ensure you have work from day one and don't need to spend a majority of your time building out a client roster. This will also allow you to gauge the independent lifestyle and determine if it works for you. It's a sort of try-before-you-buy scenario, where you can really evaluate if being a freelance professional aligns with your salary expectations, schedule preferences, and so on. If you find it's everything you hoped for and yearn for the independence it provides, you're always able to go off and build your own business.”

Skills to pay the bills: Overhaul or tune up?

If you’re feeling uncertain about your skill set, you could start with a clean slate and become steeped in the latest advances in technology. But since deep skills in specific industries are in demand, it may be time to double down instead of starting anew.

“Theoretically, both professional reinvention and training tune-ups are great; however, most critical is ensuring you have a strong base,” says Addison Group’s McDonald. “If you are motivated, articulate, intelligent, and professional, either reinvention or training will improve your demand. That said, training is likely more valuable in the short term given most jobs are seeking skilled technical professionals, and reinvention implies you’re starting over.”

Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for making yourself more marketable in the coming tech gig economy. Kelly’s Paulo suggests first taking a step back and doing a little self-analysis.

John Reed, senior executive director, Robert Half Technology

“The most valuable technology employees right now are those with the ability to balance technical skill and business acumen.” — John Reed, senior executive director, Robert Half Technology

“If you want to capitalize on some of the newer tech opportunities, such as mobile app development or cyber security certifications, you may need to reinvent yourself if you do not have that kind of experience,” he says. “If you want to stay in the same general area of specialty you are currently in, you could likely tune up with training and higher-level certifications.”

“Whether or not to ‘reinvent yourself’ depends on your skill set,” says John Reed, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half Technology. “If you’ve been working with older languages that may not be as relevant broadly throughout the job market or if you want to venture into an area that you haven’t worked in before -- for example, data roles -- it could be advantageous to take on additional training in order to gain new skills.”

Either way you play it, Fieldglass’ Brimm says it may not even require new certifications, merely a competency at rolling with new tech.

“It’s becoming a lot easier to download tutorials, watch clips of videos, and connect with others digitally that can increase an existing skill set and help flexible workers broaden their niche talents,” Brimm says. “There is always room to grow and always room to improve. In any industry there should be a continued appetite to learn and grow.”

Step out or stay put?

Despite the obvious appeal of running your own show and setting your schedule, going freelance isn’t for everyone. What if the gig economy isn’t for you? Job security, steady pay, and the benefits that come along may be the prime motivators in your work life. And if companies are likely to increase staffing via contract work in the years ahead, how can you set yourself apart in the potentially dwindling full-time IT employment market?

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