The Pros and Cons of Contract Technical Communication

Bobby McFall
Technical communication offers multiple employment choices, including contract technical writing. Pat O’Donnell, staffing specialist with TMP Worldwide in Bloomington, MN, speaking from the perspective of a contract house, says 60 to 80 percent of technical communication jobs consist of contract work, and of those, 70 percent are hourly contract jobs.

A form of temporary employment, contract technical communication utilizes writers for jobs that terminate upon completion of the assignments. Last year O’Donnell placed 77 writers in contract assignments.

Working as a contract technical communicator offers many advantages. New writers gain valuable experience in many fields, disciplines, and software and hardware applications. Broad experience equals marketability. Additionally, many contract houses offer benefits such as 401Ks and medical insurance for assignments lasting more than six months. Wages for entry-level writers generally start under $15 an hour, but good writers can expect a steep rise in their salaries within a year.

Eighty-five percent of contract technical communication jobs require the services of a writer in six-month increments, although jobs last an average of eleven months. According to O’Donnell, average permanent technical communication positions last only thirteen months due to the churn in technology caused by software and hardware improvements, preferences, or sudden industry trends (out with the old; in with the new).

Whenever the economy slows down, the job market slows down. When trimming budgets to look healthy to investors, many companies dismiss their writers, often viewed as luxury personnel. However, in a poor economy, contract jobs are more likely to become permanent, so technical communicators need to stress special skills or background training, such as medical, engineering, or programming. Post Y2K statistics indicate that last year 60 percent of contract jobs became permanent.

Recruiters prefer writers with a four-year degree in technical communication. However, degrees in technical support fields or in the computer industry prove viable alternatives. Clients also favor writers with credentials demonstrating good citizenship and hard work. Troubleshooting capabilities, project management skills, experience, and proven writing ability rank high in desirable traits. Additionally, writers who understand specific cultures and/or environments rank high in preference by recruiters and clients alike.

Recommendations...

O’Donnell recommends a strong resume that clearly states job skills and accomplishments, as well as a portfolio that demonstrates ability and capability. Each portfolio should include: objective, target audience, writer’s contribution to the project, and the success of the project (i.e. This new design is now used company-wide . . . ).

Contract technical communi-cation allows writers with limited experience to gain valuable skills in a variety of business applications. Excellent writing skills, a willing-ness to learn, adaptability, and flexibility provide the footings for a successful career in contract technical communication.


 
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