Your contract has ended and you’re adrift with no new work on the horizon. The first few days are nice – you take mid-morning walks, catch up with friends, and read that book you’ve been putting off.
But after a while, the realities of everyday life begin to catch up with you and you realise your bank account can’t support this recumbent lifestyle for long. Time to get back on the horse.
You know you need to polish your CV, and you should probably have a look around on some job sites, speak to some agencies or some of your contractor friends. Then there’s the LinkedIn profile that needs some attention, and you need to find a way of keeping track of the progress of your applications. Starting to sound like a lot of work now, isn’t it?
It’s not as bad as all that, though – you just need a little structure. Your search for a new contract can be broken down into three different tasks:
- Initial Preparation – things to do or consider upfront before you start applying for contracts
- Daily Activity – things to do each day as you hunt for another contract
- Role Specific Activity – things to do for specific gigs to which you’ve applied.
You don’t need to do everything on the list – use this as a starting point and do the things that are relevant to you and your circumstances. Try some of the things you haven’t considered before – it might just help you find the kind of contractor or freelance job you’ve been pining for.
In this article, we’ll be exploring these three steps in greater detail to help you find your perfect contractor gig.
First up, here’s everything you need to consider before you start applying for jobs.
Think about the future
Do you want or need a career plan? For some people, a career isn’t important – you may just be looking for a gig that pays the bills and/or gives you a good work/life balance. If you’re a careerist, you’ll need to think about what’s needed to progress along a chosen path. There’s a lot to consider.
You need to think about the skills and experience required and the types of company or work environment that can offer them to you. You need to understand your goals and timescales and what you’re prepared to invest to meet them.
As a contractor, you may very well need to invest your own time and money to gain new skills – how can you juggle that with a 9-to-5 position?
Talk to trusted people, read books and blogs on the subject, and give yourself some quiet time to ponder.
Identify needs, motivations, and preferred culture
What do you actually want from a gig (aside from an income)?
What’s important to you? More responsibility, free lunch, big budgets, less travel, something you’re passionate about? Write everything down and prioritise the list. This is your filter for which jobs you apply for, questions to ask at the interview, and your guide when deciding whether to accept a job.
Calculate the rate you need and the rate you want
Income is always an emotive subject. There are two questions to answer: how much do you need and how much do you want? They are very different questions and you need to be realistic with both. They form your acceptable range.
Knowing how much you need sets the minimum day rate – it’s what you could work, covering your household and tax bills, and what you could get by on. You’ll always be aiming for what you want, but what you need is a useful filter. It’s best to establish this early in your planning, ready for when it comes up in conversation with a recruiter or client.
Our Day Rate Calculator can give you an idea of the going rate around the country. You can also use our Take-Home Pay Calculator to – perhaps more importantly – check how much you’ll actually be taking home based on your day rate. This can help you predict how much you’d get working as either a sole trader, a limited company, or through an Umbrella.
Plan preferred journey and cost
If you’re lucky, there may be gigs you’re interested in right on your doorstep. If that’s not the case, you need to work out how far you’re prepared to commute for a new job. Look at the different travel options – car, bike, bus, tube, and train. Consider it from a travel time perspective, not just distance.
For instance, I wanted to travel no more than one hour each way when I last looked for a job. Once I decided that, I checked the travel times for various locations – Google Maps can give you a good indicator. From that, I was able to work out which were the furthest points in each direction I could reach in one hour. I then included these locations in my job searches and job alerts.
You also need to factor travel costs into your rate requirements. Consider car sharing to keep the cost down or look at season tickets for the train. If you can cycle, even better – record the mileage and claim it back to reduce your tax bill. There are different rules around claiming business mileage depending on whether you’re working as a limited company, sole trader, or Umbrella contractor – a good accountant can advise you on the relevant rules.
Rewrite your CV
If your last contract was a lengthy one, your CV is probably a bit dusty and in need of a refresh. This is your sales pitch, and your foot in the door, so don’t take shortcuts. Dedicate some time to it, and make sure you’re selling yourself effectively.
Depending on how many applications you’re sending out, it can be a huge time sink, but it’s best to have a CV tailored to the gig for which you’re applying. That doesn’t mean re-write it from scratch each time – spend some time crafting a ‘master’ CV that paints you in the best light. Then, each time you want to apply for a position, tweak the master document to suit the specifications of the role.
Tap your own network
One of the most popular ways to find new work is through your friends, family, and colleagues. Often, contractors are hired and released in groups – with a group of people all looking at the same time, the first one to get lucky might be able to put in a good work for you.
From my experience, that word-of-mouth recommendation will increase your chances of getting your foot in the door, providing you have the relevant experience. Just be smart about it – don’t burn bridges in your network by asking them to put you forward for roles you’re not suitable for.
Shortlist recruitment agencies and send them your CV
With so many agencies acting as gatekeepers for the juiciest clients, it can be tricky to land your perfect contractor gig without an agency being involved in some way.
Where possible, go for the ones which specialise in your discipline. They’ll have a better understanding of what you do and should have a better chance of matching you to a relevant role – this is especially true in technical disciplines. But be warned – the quality of the service can vary considerably.
Some can be really attentive and want to understand your preferences and motivations, but for others, it’s a numbers game, and you’ll have to keep regular contact with them to make sure you’re getting considered for roles. There’s no harm in badgering them a bit – just remember they’ll be earning a nice fee for placing you in a company, and sometimes that might mean they won’t act in your best interests.
Recruiters could charge anywhere between 10% to 25% in commission fees. They may also continue to take a commission fee if you go on to do more work for the company they put you in contact with, arguing that the opportunity wouldn’t have been available to you had they not first put you in touch.
“Recruiters will email you with vague information about positions for unidentifiable clients. Sometimes they will ask you to sign an agreement that you will not try to circumvent them and reach out to the client directly. Don’t sign anything. Ask what companies are they recruiting for. If they are not willing to disclose the company names, chances are they’ve just [crawled LinkedIn for positions] and are not working for their ‘clients’. They are merely forwarding your CV to random companies. Try to avoid this kind of recruitment agents if possible. Employers do not like dealing with this type of recruiter either.”
LinkedIn profile update
Of course you’re on LinkedIn, aren’t you? LinkedIn profiles are a great way of hunting for work – and if you work in a competitive sector, you’ll also find recruiters connecting with you regularly. LinkedIn gives you a handy way of putting the content of your CV on public view, inviting enquiries from those seeking to fill positions requiring your skillset.
There’s a bit of an art to optimising your LinkedIn profile, so it’s worth trying out some tips from the many blogs on the subject.
Adding and improving skills
If you’re decided that you want to move into an area that’s not previously been your specialisation, you might not have all the skills that are required for the role. Sure, you could blag it in the interview, but what happens when you’re in the job? It might be a good idea to address that sooner rather than later.
Depending on your situation (financial, geographical, availability, etc.), there are plenty of options. There are free and paid courses available online, or you may prefer evening classes at a local venue. You could volunteer and get experience, you can join a hack club, you could find a mentor, or you could just read a book.
Regardless of how you do it, think about when you can do it and, specifically, what you want to achieve. It’ll be harder to plan your route to a particular point if your goal is vague. Breaking it down into definable chunks will make it more manageable and you’ll be more motivated when you pass each milestone.
Prepare a portfolio
Your CV states you have certain skills and experience, but how can you demonstrate those skills to a recruiter or potential client? One of the best ways is to prepare a portfolio of work.
Your portfolio can take many different forms – slide decks, a personal blog, video portfolio, or website. The use of a creative, alternative CV is on the rise and there are some fantastic examples online.
Budget job-hunting costs
Job hunting is not free. It’ll certainly cost you time, but there are also many expenses you’ll incur whilst you search. Most of them centre around the interview – the travel costs to get there, perhaps a new outfit or shoes. The post-interview beer in the pub round the corner to wind down.
Then there are training costs, the phone bill – it all adds up. Thankfully many of these can be claimed as allowable business expenses.
You need to be aware of these costs, so you can budget for them. If you’re not currently under contract, the cost may feel even greater, as these expenses will eat into any savings or rainy day fund you may have. This could also influence how long you hold out for the rate you want, or whether you compromise earlier and take a gig simply to get some cash through the door.
Build your network with new contacts
This is a task to be done over time, not just when you’re on the prowl for new work. Throughout your working life, you meet a lot of people – fellow contractors, colleagues, suppliers, people at networking events and conferences etc.
It’s not enough to send everyone you meet requests to connect on LinkedIn and expect them to put you forward for a job. You need to cultivate a relationship. Build a reputation in your field, give advice, comment on articles, and help others with their own challenges. When the time comes, people will be more inclined to help.
Right, the groundwork is done and you’re ready to get going. Unfortunately, the perfect contract won’t just walk up to you on day one, so here’s a few things you can do in the meantime.
Research potential clients
So, you know what kind of contract you’re after, and a good idea of the company culture that you prefer – it’s time to find out which businesses can offer that to you. This requires a bit of digging on your part. You can research companies you’d like to work for and find out which agencies they source their contractors through, or approach them directly.
Follow up client pitches and agency enquiries
It’s a sad fact that contractors, just like all job-hunters, will often fire off applications and hear nothing back. Most businesses will cite the lack of time – they can’t afford to talk to you about why you’re unsuitable.
You have two options:
- Accept that after a given period (between a week and 10 days) you’re not being considered for an interview, or
- Follow up after three to five days to check on progress. The latter is easier when you’re chasing a recruitment agency, but be more cautious if you’re following up with the client directly.
Now you’ve completed your preparation and got your routine in place, you’re firing off pitches left and right. So, what do you need to do to increase the odds of landing a gig you’re interest in?
Research the client
No matter who the client is or how mundane the job, don’t go into an interview without having first done your research on the company. It’s a turn-off for the client and will expose you as someone who cares little for where you work. It also raises the question of whether you’d be as ill-prepared in your approach to work if you were hired.
What do you need to know about the company? It’ll vary for the type and level of the role, but at the very least should know what they do, how they do it, where they do it, and who they do it for.
Of course, for some gigs that involve things like security clearances and NDAs, you might not be able to find this information out ahead of time – but hopefully, the interviewer will take that into consideration.
Can you talk about everything on your CV? How successful was each project? What challenges did you have to overcome? What role did you play in each contract? Contractors are usually assessed on raw capability rather than personality and cultural fit (you won’t be there forever, after all), but it still helps to have some talking points lined up.
This can be pretty difficult to do, but worth the time. Firstly, you need to find a practice partner. Choose someone you trust to give you honest feedback.
Secondly, say your answers out loud. This makes a huge difference and is much better than preparing by just scribbling notes and thinking about your answers. Even better, consider filming yourself answering the questions – it’ll give you a chance to review your answers and analyse how you come across (tip: sit up straight and don’t slouch – you’ll look more engaged and enthusiastic).
We’ve got an article with some great interview tips for more ideas.
Practise phone interviews
There are a few distinct differences between how you prepare for a phone interview and one in person. For a start, phone interviews are shorter – they’re used as a screener by recruiters to save time. This doesn’t mean you can afford to scrimp on preparation – if anything, it makes them even more important. You don’t know what you’ll be asked, so prepare as much as you would for a face-to-face interview.
The key difference is the environment. Firstly, you need to find somewhere you won’t be disturbed, and with a strong phone signal. Secondly, you can have all your notes with you, including your tailored CV and cover letter, your list of questions, and any notes you’ve prepared for answer particular questions.
Dress the part
This used to be much easier. Suited and booted for men, smart business attire for women. Nowadays, with more relaxed company cultures becoming common, the waters have been muddied. The answer is often as simple as asking the person organising the interview. If in doubt, go smart – better to feel a little overdressed than the underdressed.
Oh, and even if the dress is relaxed, don’t turn up looking like you slept in your clothes. You’re still trying to make a good impression, after all.
This one really depends on the gig. If the position requires you to lead, to be creative and use your initiative, then consider going a step further in your interview preparation and bring a set of slides showing your observations, ideas, and recommendations. It’s a tangible way of showing your potential client you have the traits they’re looking for in a successful candidate.
So, that’s a pretty huge list. Remember, you don’t need to do everything, just the bits that you think will help. Good luck!
Confused about IR35?
If you’re in need of further support with IR35, check out our comprehensive IR35 hub. From here, you can discover all of our IR35 Knowledge articles, download our jargon-free business guide, and learn more about the support and service we offer around IR35.