It’s easy being a consultant? Think again!

Even Sherlock Holmes has a hard time as a consultant in his field. (image from tomandbensbitch.tumblr.com)

Even Sherlock Holmes has a hard time as a consultant in his field. (image from tomandbensbitch.tumblr.com)

I was recently reminded of how challenging it can actually be to be a consultant in this world. As a result, it was suggested to me (thanks, Marc Gravez!) that perhaps it would be a good idea to write and share what it really means to be a consultant.

We need to start with the general perception of what a consultant is. Most people think that consultants are mega-experts in their field that focus only on specific skills. Consultants advise others on how to do certain tasks, and only stay for a short amount of time at a job. Consultants are paid the big bucks, and are independent workers, so they don’t need benefits because they can buy their own–they are independent entrepreneurs of sorts. These individuals want to be consultants, and aren’t looking for permanent work. Because they are at a project for a short amount of time, they do not make any personal connections with clients, and don’t need to be integrated into the company team working on a project. Likewise, when it comes to team or company activities, they don’t care about being included, because their own company does things with them outside of the company.

While I can understand why people would think this way, over many years, I’ve discovered that very rarely are these perceptions are true. In fact, this view is a little bit skewed, and this became very clear once I became consultant myself.

To clarify, there are some independent consultants who are mini-entrepreneurs who do like working on short-term projects, moving around, and making a good salary in the process. However, in my experience, there aren’t many of those out there necessarily, or only a few of those factors are in play.  I would venture to guess that many–if not most– consultants are not voluntarily consultants.  For example, I’ve been looking for a full-time position for about 8 years now, and have yet to find one.  I take consulting jobs to keep my income going, because even temporary work pays more than unemployment or unemployment benefits. I’ve met many people like myself who are in the same situation.

From what I’ve discovered, a “consultant” is a fancy term for a temporary worker with more than administrative assistant level skills (which justifies the higher than admin assistant level salaries).  With the economy as it is, many companies are afraid to hire skilled workers full-time because they are more expensive to hold onto long-term due to benefits, insurance, etc.  I understand that. Very often, that’s what companies think that they need.  However, the disruption of getting temporary workers changing every few months to every few years is not helpful to a company who is looking for consistency. As I said, some people like to be able to change jobs every few months or every other year, but most would prefer to have some employment stability–or at least as much as a regular employee would have. The longest assignment I’ve had to date, since entering the tech comm field, is two and a half years–which is fairly long. The longest assignment I’ve heard of is three years, unless some consultant works more as a vendor than a consultant. Sometimes consultants are converted into full-time employees, but those instances are very rare. There have been SO many times when I was hoping for such a conversion for myself, and it didn’t materialize to my frustration, even when I was told that I was a valuable member of the team and my manager was pleased with my output. I had one “client” even tell me that they just had to hand a project over, and then “let go of the reins”–they didn’t have to worry about me messing anything up, and they knew the project was in good hands. How do you not hire someone like that after more than 2 years? It’s not just me, but many aren’t.

It’s also thought that they are super specialized–and some are. But I’m willing to bet there are a lot of consultants out there that are like me, that have multiple talents and skills waiting to be used. I do content strategist and management tasks mostly, but I can also write and edit, do intermediate level graphics work, interact and write on social media and blog, help build e-learning modules– there’s more than one facet to me.  Often, consultants are not allowed to grow and develop their skills as much because they are limited to the task they are hired for, and their client isn’t about to help with professional development. Professional development becomes the responsibility of the consultant if they want to keep up with their field, and be able to either keep the assignment they have, or be able to find something else in the future. The cost of that professional development comes out of the consultant’s pocket, and it’s not cheap by any means. This is not only detrimental for the consultant, but it can also be detrimental for a company, because if they have a long-term consultant, they aren’t investing much in helping their company grow, just in the same way that they claim that investing in professional development for employees helps their employees grow, thus the company grows. It’s a double-edged sword. Even a discounted investment, if not full investment, in a consultant’s professional development, would be helpful for all parties involved.

Consultants are thought to be well paid. And generally, they are. But, as far as being super rich as a result? HA! Consulting can be lucrative if you are representing yourself and you are not working from an agency. Agencies try to get you a fair hourly pay rate, but because they are the “middle man”, they get a huge cut of what the company/client is paying. So, if you got all the funds from the company directly, then yes, you’d be making big money! But as it is, you hope for a fair rate. The only advantage of working through an agency, as I see it, is that they will figure out how much taxes and fees to take out of your paycheck. You are actually an employee of the agency, not the client/company you are working at. If you are an independent consultant without an agency, sure, the extra money that would be the agency fee would be yours, but then you’d be needing to ensure that YOU are taking out the taxes from your incoming paychecks. Additionally, while some agencies offer some benefits, they are often overpriced benefits that aren’t worth the money. I get my medical benefits through my husband’s job, because I’ve yet to have an agency offer a package that would benefit me (or my family) at a reasonable cost. Additionally, independent consultants have to pay for the benefits 100% out of their own pockets, and at least with American medical insurance, that’s a huge sum of money. So in the end, they don’t make as much as an employee does, or probably makes less or the same as an employee does, with less benefits. Additionally, consultants aren’t paid a salary, but rather an hourly rate. No paid sick leave or paid vacations. You don’t work–you don’t get paid. That’s less money right there, alone.

Lastly, consultants are PEOPLE, not robots. We like to interact with other people, and we often enjoy being part of a team. Most of the time, we are treated the same as employees in the workplace when it comes to our daily responsibilities and output, with the same expectations. But when it comes time for rewards, recognition, and simple company inclusion, consultants are left out in the cold. We are the “red-headed stepchildren” of the workforce. We aren’t allowed to participate in the company picnic, get any praise for a job or project that’s done well, or get the bonus or “holiday gift” at the end of the year for all our hard work unless our personal manager decides to give a holiday token gift as a small thank you. I understand that companies can’t pay for everyone because some consultants would start to say they deserve all the rights and privileges of being an employee–even try to pass themselves off as employees– when they are not, but some companies are outright draconian with it. And often, this grand divide between employees and consultants is further widened because consultants are left in the cold.

For example, a company I know gave their employees both a bonus AND and expensive wearable device as an employee gift.  Some of the employees complained that they didn’t want it because it wasn’t compatible with their Android phone (okay, valid point), but they whined about it in front of the consultants. What did the consultants get? Nothing. Just an earful of complaints about the gift from the employees. My experience is that consultants do know their place and function in the company. Consultants are usually happy to get whatever they can, because they’re just happy that they are EMPLOYED AT ALL! There was another occasion where I had worked on a very large team project, and everyone on the team except me got an extra bonus and reward because of the company’s reward and recognition program. It was the first time I had actually been recognized for my work, and I couldn’t even benefit from it because I was a consultant. (I admit, I cried about it, because it was the first time in my entire career I had been recognized for my work in any way, and here I was left out again only because I was a consultant and not an employee.) I was fortunate that the client wanted to do something about that so I wouldn’t feel left out, and they were kind enough to make sure that the agency forwarded a token “bonus” of sorts to me. It was an exception, but it meant so much to me because I worked so hard on that project–as much as any employee if not more than some of those employees, and I had never been recognized for my professional work before. It was a kind gesture, but ultimately, it still wasn’t the same as being an employee.  Being a consultant often means being left out in the cold, the persona non gratis, at the workplace, and it can be a lonely, un-fulfilling feeling.

Being a consultant is not glamourous or Ab Fab.

Being a consultant is not glamorous or Ab Fab.

Being a consultant is not all that glamorous. We work as hard–sometimes harder–than your average employee so that we can try to keep up or move ahead. Some consultants can turn their independence into a thriving business–they are the lucky ones. Most of us are merely those who struggle to find some stability and security in their career, working for agencies, taking what assignments we can get so that we still use the skills that we have and pay our bills.  We are team players, and we can fill in gaps as needed, but even when we are the star players, we are treated like bench warmers. Sure, life isn’t fair, but in that respect, consultants need to be treated with more respect in the workplace as a result. They are doing jobs that perhaps no one else can do–or wants to do, and they are trying to do their best to help your company pull ahead, and they don’t get to reap any of the benefits of doing so, other than knowing they do a good job.

So, support your local consultants. They often contribute to your company as much as any employee does. They invest themselves into what’s best for your company as much as any employee. Like I said, most would love a full-time job, but there are few to be had. They are resourceful people who keep going on many short-term positions with no guarantee of a next assignment right away.  I wouldn’t mind being a full-time independent consultant either, but again, figuring out where each next assignment is going to come from is not a guarantee, either.  It’s time that consultants are given more credit and compassion than they get now.

If you are a consultant, do you agree with my assessment? Do you like being a consultant, or would you prefer more stable employment? Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Add your comments below. I would like to hear about other people’s experiences and perspectives.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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3 Responses to It’s easy being a consultant? Think again!

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    I think you’ve described the life of a consultant pretty well — although, and this is a minor point, I wouldn’t use the term consultant for all of the roles you describe. For me a consultant is a person or company hired to apply their specialized knowledge to a specific high-profile project or to effect some improvement in business processes. People who work through agencies for a set period of time, say six months or a year, might better be called contractors. But, regardless, you’ve nailed the description quite well.

    For the consultant/contractor it’s vital to decide how you want to market yourself. Do you trade on a narrow range of specialized skills, or do you present yourself more as a generalist? If the latter, you’re more likely to find jobs. But you’re challenged to differentiate yourself — your unique skill set — from the other people who are competing for the same jobs.

    Having been both a traditional employee and a consultant/contractor, I personally prefer the (relative) security of being a traditional employee. Many of our colleagues in Tech Comm, however, have made excellent livelihoods as consultants. I think the main difference is that they’re better at selling themselves and perhaps that they’re less averse to taking risks. (Maybe you can ally yourself with a mentor who’s had success working as a consultant.)

    Good luck to you. I know that you’ve struggled to find your place in the professional world, but don’t give up. The perfect job might be just around the corner.

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