Most it contractors start out as their permanent counterparts and, having notched up several years' worth of client contacts, training and expertise in their area, decide to move into the more flexible terrain of contracting.
The theory of contracting - more money, greater flexibility in terms of who you work for and for how long – obviously sounds like a very attractive proposition to many. But is it suitable for everyone? Seasoned contractors would argue that it isn't. Those same contractors have taken the 'rough' edges of contracting with the 'smooth' over the years, particularly in the recent tough times. Many contractors have found themselves sat on the bench for months at a time, eating into their 'warchest' of savings, sensibly put to one side to cover the downs, as well as the ups, of freelancing.
So although CUK's annual poll pointed to 65% or more of respondents being in contract for at least three quarters of 2010, it certainly pays to have a resilient nature as one key attribute. Other traits that go hand in hand with contracting are an ability to move from post to post and company to company with ease, accepting that praise will be replaced with your invoice being paid on time (if you're lucky) and being comfortable with permanently being the 'outsider'. To many contractors the rewarding flipside of the latter is not being involved in the petty politics of day-to-day office life.
Together with the challenges of working for different companies, and perhaps applying your knowledge to different industries too, there's also the ongoing challenge of keeping up to date and compliant with legislation such as IR35, income shifting and the Agency Workers Regulations to name a few, and running your own business. (Contractor UK's forum also contains a wealth of knowledge and experience from fellow contractors which should be read in conjunction with the site's guides.)
You may also find that you have to work away from home; specialised skillsets particularly might mean fewer matching roles on your doorstep and therefore a commute that's impractical on a daily basis.
Having looked at some of the challenges however, the rewards are many: contractors on the CUK forum have paid off mortgages early and afforded themselves a certain lifestyle by contracting. More valuable than that for many is the freedom it affords: if you want to spend the summer holidays with the kids while they're off school, you can.
IT contracting is certainly not an easy ticket to fame and fortune, but it is possible to achieve your goals if you know there is a market for your skills and you are prepared to work hard over a number of years, cultivating contacts as you go. It certainly helps to have a plan too, what you want to achieve and what your priorities are in terms of contract rate and being away from home included in that.