Finding your first contract can be a daunting task.  Unless you are well qualified or have an excellent network of contacts that can tell you about available work you are probably going to have to deal with recruiters.

Recruiters, are they all scumbags?

How to find work as an IT contractor

Contrary to popular belief most recruiters are not scumbags.  This perception is usually formed due to unrealistic expectations or a lack of understanding of how recruiters operate.

First you must understand that the recruiter serves two masters: the employer; and you the contractor.  Recruiters are engaged by companies to find them suitable candidates for vacant positions.  A recruiter does this by either going to his database of contractors and trying to match up one with relevant skills, experience, and upcoming availability, or puts out an ad on one of the job sites such as Seek.

Secondly you must understand that the recruiter works on a purely speculative basis.  There is no pay day for the recruiter until they have successfully placed you in a contract.

Dealing with recruiters

If you are using recruiters here are some points that I recommend you consider for your approach:

1. Get in touch with the recruiter outside of a specific job advertisement.

Most jobs are not advertised, which makes responding to job ads a mugs game because it makes you one person in a sea of applicants.  If you’re exceptional you will stand out, but if you’re exceptional you shouldn’t have to resort to applying to advertised jobs in the first place.  Phone the recruiter and find out how to submit your resume directly to them.  Chances are they’ll match you up with jobs that haven’t hit the job websites yet.

2. Make your resume brief and as perfect as you can.

Recruiters aren’t always very tech savvy, so avoid submitting a long bullet list of technical terms.  Make it clear who you have worked for, how long for, the job title, and describe the duties clearly enough that a non-technical person could understand them.

3. Have references available.

You don’t need to include them on the resume but you need to have them ready to go when the recruiter asks.  If its the first time you’ve dealt with a recruiter they may ask to contact your referrees before you are put forward for any roles.

4. Be willing to build a relationship.

If your recruiter wants to take you to coffee to meet face to face and be more comfortable with you both personally and professionally then do it.  The better your relationship with the recruiter the better your contracting career will go.

5. Be clear in your asking rates and conditions.

Let your recruiter know up front about your business structure, your asking rate, whether that includes super or not, whether you want their payroll/insurance services or not, and any other preferences such as where you prefer to work.  It is a waste of both of your time if they put you forward for a job $10/hr under your asking rate that is on the wrong side of town with no public transport available.

Always make sure the recruiter understands how much notice you need to give at your current job.  Everyone wants a contractor to start ASAP, but most places will understand that you need to give 4 weeks notice to leave your current position.

6. Don’t stress about how much the recruiter is making.

Your only goal is to get the rate that you want for yourself.  If the recruiter is charging the client another $5/hr, $20/hr, or $50/hr on top of that who cares?  Remember that the recruiter works on a speculative basis.  While the margin on your contract may seem high it has to cover a lot of operating expenses for the recruiter, and ensure sufficient cash flow for them such that you are getting paid immediately (remember, you get paid straight away, the recruiter may not get paid by the employer for 30, 60, or even 90 days after you’ve actually worked the hours).

    Landing your first contract

    Once you’ve got a good recruiter working for you and have been to some interviews you will hopefully get your first contract offer.

    Read your contract!

    Read your contract!

    Read your contract!

    I can’t stress that enough.  Always read your contract in full.  You’ll be under pressure to sign the contract as soon as possible, but you should never sign a contract that you are not happy with or don’t understand.  Is the hourly rate correct but doesn’t specify inclusive/exclusive of super?  Don’t sign it.  Is the termination clause unclear?  Don’t sign it.  Is the restraint clause unfairly restrictive?  Don’t sign it.

    Most recruiters are using contract templates they’ve downloaded from the web and stuck their logo and business name on.  These contracts are often lacking in critical details.  You are still in a negotiation phase so now is the time to amend any contract terms you are unhappy with.  Most recruiters will go along with this as long as you get back to them quickly with all of the amendments you want in one hit.

    Get advice from a solicitor a friend with contracting experience if you are still not sure about something.  It may cost a little the first time but once you understand the typical wording of these contracts things become easier.

    Contracting can be an exciting and lucrative time in your career provided you enter into it with a clear understanding of all of the elements involved and watch out for the common pitfalls.

    About the Author

    Paul Cunningham

    Paul is a former Microsoft MVP for Office Apps and Services. He works as a consultant, writer, and trainer specializing in Office 365 and Exchange Server. Paul no longer writes for


    1. Craig

      Thanks for a great article Paul. I graduated with a Comp Sci degree and all I get are contract offers. This is completely new territory for me so your article really helped, especially about the pay rate.

      I get so many phone calls from recruiters I wonder if maybe there is more money in recruiting than in IT work. It seems like an easier job too.

      Is it possible to work on more than one contract at a time?

      1. Avatar photo
        Paul Cunningham

        Recruiting is a tough gig and I wouldn’t want to do it personally, but I know some people who have done it successfully for a lot of years.

        Multiple contracts is fine as long as they aren’t clashing in some way (eg overlapping time expectations, competitors) and you’re able to meet the requirements of both of them at once.

    2. work smarter

      What masters are you referring to?
      One is inner and one is your boss or……………….?????????????

    3. Mike

      Everyone knows that no one can serve two masters. This is the problem.

    4. work smarter

      Do you have the advice for stage after that?
      That would be very interesting to hear from a pro.

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