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Should I Become a Contract Project Manager?

Having worked as a contract Project Manager earlier in my career, and having hired contract Project Managers more recently, I wrote an article two years ago comparing the pros and cons of using them.

 This perspective represents only one side of the coin, and with the increasing number of Project Managers I’ve met who have expressed interest in pursuing this type of work, I felt it might be beneficial to cover this topic from the other side. It should be noted that my focus is not on those Project Managers who have taken on contract work temporarily as a stopgap until they are able to land a suitable full-time role.

It might seem surprising to you, but financial benefits are not a factor I will focus on – it is well understood that contract rates will usually be higher than full-time salary rates, but it is might be more useful to calculate net annual income and monthly cash flow.

When one factors in outflows such as health or dental insurance, financial impacts of downtime between projects, self-funded personal development such as courses or conferences, operational costs such as accounting or legal fees and the impacts to liquidity of net 30 or net 60 day payment terms, financial merits alone might be insufficient to clinch the decision.

Other non-financial benefits of contract work include:

  • The freedom to decide what type of projects you will accept
  • The ability to take longer time off or to spend more time on your personal development
  • The opportunity to get much greater depth and breadth of experience than might be possible in full-time roles
  • The chance to build relationships across many companies

But before you quit your full-time role and jump into the contract market, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Are you a generalist?

In many parts of the world, it has been a buyer’s market for hiring managers.

Recruiters have the luxury to not only demand project management competence but also to expect that candidates possess specific domain expertise relevant to the needs of a given project. When recruiting full-time project managers, employers are usually going to consider the breadth of experiences which a potential candidate can bring to their organization as they are (or should be!) considering the long term. In contract situations which are more transactional and time-bounded, depth is often given greater weight.

Even if you have worked in many different industries and on many different types of projects, don’t despair! You might still have gained sufficient specialized project management experience which could be a differentiator. For example, if you have frequently taken over troubled projects from other Project Managers and have been able to complete them successfully, you could find your contractual calling as a recovery specialist.

How effective are you at networking?

Relationship building is critical for Project Managers regardless of whether they are working full-time or on contract. However, if you are not effective at cultivating your network, especially at times when you DON’T need something from your connections, it can become very challenging to find new gigs, especially when the supply of talent significantly exceeds demand.

It is almost impossible to get into the heads of a recruiter or worse, automated application processing system in order to craft a resume which guarantees being at the top of the candidate pile, so your best bet is to leverage the support of someone in your network to do a warm introduction for you. But if you haven’t taken the time to stay in touch with your contacts, helping them as often as you require their help, it will come across self-serving to solicit their assistance.

This can be challenging for many project managers. Some may simply not have the interest or ability to maintain a broad network. For others, if they have been managing a long-running project, it can become onerous to invest regularly in such business development activities.

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How resilient are you?

NO job is a sure thing.

Even long-tenured employees are just a few days’ notice from having to find alternate employment. Having said that, contract Project Managers need to possess the intestinal fortitude to stomach a greater volume of vicissitudes than their full-time peers. Shifts in business priority cause projects to be delayed or to be put on hold and organizational restructuring can result in shifts from contingent to internal workforces.

Even if none of these occur, projects come to an end, and if you haven’t been fortunate enough to line up a new gig to coincide with the end of the previous one, you could be looking at some prolonged downtime. Yes, this might be a good opportunity to take that much needed vacation or take a few courses, but that’s all on YOUR dime!

As is often the case in our profession, there is no decision tree which will help you quantitatively determine the expected value of working as a contract project manager, but with the questions I’ve provided above, hopefully, you will be better equipped to make a balanced decision.  

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