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  • Annette Corbett

The Inbetweeners

Navigating the ebbs and flows of contract work...

Lady standing between two rows of office buildings looking to her left

I talk a lot about the benefits of contracting; the fast track route to skills development, career progression and better rates of pay (notwithstanding the inevitable loss of some rather nice corporate benefits).

But contracting can abruptly cast you in the role of Inbetweener.

What it means to “in between”

Towards the end of last year when a “change in direction” brought the curtain down on a contract (my first experience of having that happen, in case you decide here and now contracting wouldn’t be for you), I found myself out of work with next to no notice.

The timing was awful - mere weeks away from Christmas - in a market that had begun to tremble like a slowly deflating balloon. I told myself some big girl pants were called for and things would surely pick up towards the end of January (as was usually the case).

This is the nature of contracting. Contracts can end abruptly. Promises can be made about contract renewal as you move towards that end date but this offers no guarantee without a formal extension offer. With the best intentions in the world you can still find yourself out of work with nothing else lined up. Or you can spend weeks, even months, planning your next move in a market that offers precisely nothing, just when you need it.

Keep calm and stay in your lane

Here's where you need to hold your nerve, be mindful to keep the bar high - or more or less where it should be based on your experience - and not where you think the market is telling you it should be.

While the role of Inbetweener is likely to create a small fracture in confidence, you’ll be looking at a gargantuan chasm if you start to apply for roles you wouldn’t have considered a year ago.

Why? Because hiring managers have a sixth sense for moments like these. However good you think your game face is, you can’t fake passion or enthusiasm for a “make-do” role, so don’t try.

Better to lose out on a job you really wanted, rather than to something your heart was never into.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try something different, just reflect on whether this an intentional pivot or the tail wagging the dog.

I've been considering change. My last permanent role - in which I managed my first team and developed a solid toolkit of skills - was 2 years ago and for a while now I’ve been thinking about applying for longer-term, or, dare I say even permanent roles? I’d like a chance to put all the skills I’ve picked up in the last couple of years to use in a project that has legs.

And, well, nothing is permanent, is it? Permanent roles can become redundant with the same speed of my last contract.

How you work should be a perspective, rather than an expectation, because you simply won’t ever hold all the cards.

How to win at Inbetweening

So, let’s assume you’re a contractor and find yourself in this space. How can you use this period effectively? There’s a quote in Titanic I love for moments like these:

”All life is a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You don’t know what hand you’ll be dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you, to make each day count.”

Hopelessly cheesy, but this actually describes contracting perfectly. The uncertainty and the silver lining. But these are also these pockets of time which can be so useful for “checking in” and asserting whether you’re on the right track (and this opportunity rarely presents itself to people in permanent roles).

The check-in

Put autonomy aside and scrutinise your market.

Are job descriptions relating to your industry or role changing? Which core skills are coming into play that were never previously a requirement?

For example, changes I’ve noticed are that coaching qualifications are now sought after in more senior and leadership roles and AI is creeping into the scope of many creative and data driven roles.

Are there any skills you need to develop to stay competitive?

And check-out…

If you take away only one thing from this blog, let it be this.

Don’t spend your entire day looking for jobs. That might sound hopelessly obvious but if you start to track your screen time as an Inbetweener you’ll be horrified at the hours you begin to ramp up, unchecked.

If a job was posted today, it will be there tomorrow, so set aside an hour or two each day to see which roles have landed and apply in those blocks of time. And then forget about it. I mean that quite literally, actually, I don't keep score of the jobs I've applied for because it's impossible not to be angry at the lack of response sometimes.

Job hunting is an always-on, rabbit hole of adrenalin rushes (when you hit “apply) and crashes (when you’re consequently hurtled into an abyss of silence).

Vanessa Lewis, fellow freelancer, shares her tips for enterprising in a tough market, which I loved and wanted to share:

“I began assisting local businesses with social media management and content creation. I also took on projects like food delivery driving and staffing local events, fueled by my passion for concerts and event planning.
Through these experiences, I learned to think creatively and pivot when necessary. Not only did this bolster my work ethic, but it also allowed me to develop additional skills beyond those used in my 9-5 job. Ultimately, freelancing helped me offset stagnant income and cope with the challenges of inflation.”

A bouffet of silver linings, right there.

The relentless hustle mindset

But what about the real elephant in the room? The financial implications of being an Inbetweener. There, I'm afraid, I run out of silver linings. Building up a small network of clients, or wearing multiple hats (like Vanessa) can help to plug the unscheduled stop gaps but constant interruptions to your income can be devastating.

Apart from the obvious advice to have a financial buffer (in addition to any savings) I think contracting requires a degree of entrepreneurship and a hustle mindset; identifying gaps in the market that only you can see - from your unique view as a contractor - and capitalising on them. Just turning up to do the job isn't always enough.

So here's to future proofing our dream scenario in the workplace (with occasional moments which may require you to fly by the seat of your pants with your hair on fire).

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