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Find your perfect gig: the ultimate contractor job hunt checklist

Posted on Apr 16th, 2018 | Running a business

Find your perfect gig: the ultimate contractor job hunt checklist, image of a the definition of skills required

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. Maybe speak to some agencies. Oh and perhaps speak to some contractor friends. And then there’s the LinkedIn profile that needs some attention. And maybe figure out a way to keep track of applications. Hmmm, this is starting to sound like a lot of work.

It’s not that bad 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 gigs
  • 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.

Initial Preparation

First up, everything to consider before you start applying for jobs:


Have a good hard 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 is needed to progress along a chosen path. There is a lot to consider.

You need to think about the skills and experience required and the types of company or environment that can them to you. You need to understand your goals and timescales and what you are 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 can be passionate about? Write everything down and prioritise the list. This is your filter for which jobs you apply for, questions to ask at interview and your aid for deciding whether to accept a job.


Calculate the rate you need and the one 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 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 for, covering your household and tax bills, and what you could get by on. You’ll always be aiming for what you want, but 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 how much the going rate is around the country. Perhaps even more importantly how much will you actually take home, our Take-Home Pay Calculator can help see how much you’d get whether working as a sole trader, limited company or through an Umbrella?


Plan preferred journey & cost

If you’re lucky, there are gigs you’re interested in on your doorstep. If that’s not the case then 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. Look at it from a travel time perspective, not mileage.

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 cost 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.


Re-write 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 its best to have a CV tailored to the gig for which you’re applying. That doesn’t mean rewrite 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 job ad’.


Tap your own network

One of the most popular ways to find a new work is through word of mouth via 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 word for you. From my experience, that 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’s tricky to land your perfect gig without them 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 will want to understand your preferences and motivations, but for others, it’s a numbers game and you’ll have to keep in touch with them to make sure you’re getting some consideration for roles. There is 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.


Linkedin profile update

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 is a bit of an art to optimising your LinkedIn profile, so it’s worth trying out some of the tips on the many blogs about the subject.


Adding and improving skills

If you’ve 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 to do 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 paid courses online, free online courses, 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 good 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 show the recruiter or potential client that you have? 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 less gig to get the cash in 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.

It’s not enough to send everyone you meet requests to connect via 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 and help others with their own challenges. When the time comes, people will be more inclined to help.

Daily Activity

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 are a number of things to 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, so 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 vanilla employees, will often fire off enquiries 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:

1) Accept that after a given time period (a week or 10 days?) you’re not being considered for interview, or

2) Follow up after 3-5 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.

Role Specific Activity

Now you’ve done your preparation, got your routine in place and 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 interested in?


Research the client

No matter who the client or however 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, and 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 you should know what they do, how they do it, where they do it and who their customers are. Of course, for some gigs that involve things like security clearance and NDAs, you won’t be able to find this information out ahead of time – but hopefully the interviewer will realise that.


Prepare answers

Can you talk about everything on your CV? How successful was each project? 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.


Practice interviews

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 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, considering videoing yourself answering the questions – it’ll give you a chance to review your answers and analyse how you come across (tip: sit up straight, don’t slouch, you’ll look more engaged and enthusiastic).

We’ve got an article with some great interview tips for more ideas.


Practice 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 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 where you won’t be disturbed and with a good 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 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 become muddied. The answer is often as simple as asking the person organising the interview. If in doubt, go smart. Better to feel a little over-dressed than the opposite. Oh, and even if the dress code is relaxed, don’t turn up looking like you slept in your clothes. You’re still trying to make a good impression.


Exceed expectations

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!

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