The Business – Ins and Outs: Freelance, Independent, Contractor, Consultant

If getting into the technical writing business is a challenge, and it assuredly is, defining our employment status often poses a few questions too. Naturally, there’s the common full-time employee status we all know and understand fairly well, but when we find ourselves dealing with a technical services or technical consulting firm there can be some murky waters, and more than a few aberrations of the “traditional” understanding of the term. So, we need to define some “terms” of employment since the majority of technical writers will ultimately encounter variations.

When you depart from the permanent employee status you essentially enter the freelance realm, and this is where you will encounter a couple of terms that seem to have been blurred a little during the high days of the 90s when the employment environment was exceptional competitive and the placement firms were having their heyday. Specifically, the words “consultant” and “contractor” are too often used as though they were the same thing, which is to say incorrectly because they are not. Then there is the blurring of the terms used to define the placement firms, which is where we will begin for clarification.

The newer version of so-called consulting firms is not the same as the historic version, and is more accurately a technical services or contract firm/agency. These are companies that contract their “employees” to other companies without taking responsibility for the project or program (as with true consulting firms) – The headhunters. These firms or agencies work with their corporate clients to find people to do specific work at an agreed bill rate. In this arrangement, the corporation gets a “contractor” to do a specific set of tasks without the tax and benefits expenses because the agency ostensibly takes on those responsibilities. The contractor (employee) enters into an agreement with the agency, not the company they will be working for on the project. It is here we get into the aberrations of traditional employment status. The agency “captures” the individual contractor to a W2 status, essentially the same as a regular employee, but with minimal obligations and without any protective statutes for the employee. This is a convenient and very profitable arrangement for the agency for a number of reasons, not the least being they get a tremendous amount of income from the efforts of the contractors with virtually no commitment to them. Generally, the agency wants to promote the idea the contractor is an employee but only to the extent it will benefit them.

A true consultant is usually hired as an independent individual via 1099 or a contract arrangement with a real consulting firm to perform a select service, project, or series of (writing) tasks. Typically, this means assuming responsibility for completion of the project or task. Acquiring work in this status is usually based on a personal relationship with the client arriving from past work, or exceptional performance and reputation in a particular specialty of technical communication. Where contract assignments are generally out there for an experienced writer, consulting assignments are exceptional situations. Compensation is based on the agreement and can be hourly, daily, by milestones, or for the project.

When you reach the point where you think you’re ready to step out there into the freelance world, be sure you understand what the agencies are all about ($$$) and what the typical rates are for your locale. The agencies will take you down the road if you aren’t informed and vigilant, and even at that don’t expect much from them. I always demand my recruiter recognize our reciprocal relationship. Specifically, I work for the firm but they work for me too. And by the way, do not let your recruiter forget their income is partially the result of your labors, so they work for you, not the reverse. If they don’t appreciate this, find another recruiter.

More to come soon.

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