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Contracting Grows in Popularity as Option for Out-of-Work Techies

Sunday, January 28, 2001; Page L01

As layoffs continue to shake up the dot-com sector, some jittery employees wonder where they can find shelter from the aftershocks.

For more and more @Work readers, the answer is renouncing the traditional employment relationship by doing contract work: either stepping out on their own or linking up with a staffing agency that finds projects for them.

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Experts say that companies in the Internet arena may be freezing new hires or replacing departees at a slower clip, but demand for tech-savvy freelancers remains high.

"I have not seen any evidence that it's harder for a contractor to get work now than before," says James Ziegler, author of "The Contract Employee's Handbook," an idiosyncratic guide to project work. "Now they're being picked up by companies with more conservative business plans."

Supporters say contracting provides the freedom to work at home, or at least to change your environment every few months -- a welcome switch for techies who are easily bored or leery of office politics. It also gives a person exposure to different technologies and management styles.

"You don't get one year of experience 10 times," says Don McLaurin, chief executive of the National Association of Computer Consulting Businesses, a trade group of 500 technology staffing firms. "You get 10 years of different kinds of experience."

Plus, for workers with top-line skills, billing by the hour can be more lucrative than a regular full-time job, according to a salary survey released last year by Dice.com, a Web site that tracks technology pay and posts full-time and contract jobs.

But those who have taken the leap warn that freelancing has its own faults. It seems to work best for people with a command of the newest programming languages and a tolerance for long hours, says Nick Perdikis, owner of ProLink Services, a Tysons Corner company that does information technology consulting projects and provides contract workers for big telecommunications firms such as MCI WorldCom.

Perdikis says many of the contractors he meets tend to be single or newly married, with no children to support: "They don't have all the additional risks."

People who require a consistent paycheck, on the other hand, may have more difficulty adjusting to certain kinds of contract arrangements. Remember that small companies and even the behemoths often take a month or two to process their bills -- meaning that independent contractors will sometimes have to wait at least that long to be paid.

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