Contract Engineer - Why You Need to Consider this Option

Contract Engineer - Why You Need to Consider this Option

Modis Posted 20 December 2018

Whatever engineering job you may be searching for, starting a new gig as a contract engineer is the best move to get you there. Even with the economy on a rebound, if you're just beginning a job search after college, or trying to get back into the workforce after raising a family, a contract engineering position could be the perfect place to start building up your resume.

More and more employers are offering contract engineering positions, because it benefits their bottom line – and their timeline. When a company needs a project completed yesterday, they don't want to wait around for months going through the permanent employee search, interview, and onboarding process. They also may not want to wait for the full budget approval, but can get a temporary contractor approved as a line-item addition.

Employers want contract engineers

Employers regularly look to contract engineers to quickly fill staffing demands for hard-to-find niche talent. Many are looking for contract engineers certified or experienced in specific software and technology platforms, such as Epic Clarity/Cogito Administration (for electronic health records), SQL or T-SQL database management systems, AutoCAD 3D for parts design & documentation, etc.

This type of employment gives older or “over-qualified" workers an edge because employers know they can jump right in and get the job done without a lot of training. For example, one employer listed a job for an expert in specific technology who would act as a mentor for existing staff and conduct regular in-house knowledge transfer sessions.

Contract positions also give the employer an opportunity for an extended, low-risk trial period to evaluate potential full-time permanent candidates.

Why pursue contract jobs?

As an employee, the contract option may provide a lot of benefits: getting hired (and paid) as quickly as possible, developing work experience in a new area to beef up your resume, and earning top dollar as a contractor (though you may have to pay for your own employment taxes, pension, and healthcare plan). Some of your work-related expenses may even be deductible.

Another benefit is the opportunity to move around to different parts of the country and try different employers and industries until you find the right fit. Many people enjoy the flexibility of taking time off in between gigs for a long vacation – or even a honeymoon – without work responsibilities weighing them down. Older workers may find contract positions fit in well with their desire to slow down without dropping out of the workforce altogether.

Plus there's always the chance to turn contract work into a full-time position, if both parties are happy with the arrangement (more on this later).

According to, temporary contract jobs are perfect for engineering work, because they align with the types of projects engineers are known for: solving problems. For example, a medical robotics equipment manufacturer listed a one-year contract position for an engineer to develop a factory test process for the components of a new robotic system. Expected outcomes for the job are spelled out up front, including a 3-month and a 6 to 12-month goal.

Contract Engineers

What is a contract engineer?

Not all temporary positions are contract positions. In the freelance model, an engineer sets up as a business entity, and may contract with several different clients at once, while handling the marketing, legal, and accounting along with the actual engineering work.

Another type of contract engineer job can be obtained through a third-party staffing agency, which lists jobs for employers and finds engineers who can fill those jobs. The agency also manages hiring paperwork and payments. Since the Great Recession began in 2008, this type of contract work has been increasing far faster than the number of jobs.

In traditional contract engineering hiring, the position description states up front that it will last for a fixed amount of time, typically six months or a year. At the end of this period, the contract has been fulfilled and the employee moves on, with no legal obligations on either side.

Contracts vs. contract engineer

But what is a contract engineer, specifically? First, don't confuse a contract engineer with a “contracts engineer." For construction projects, a contracts engineer works as a project manager, responsible for putting out engineering bids, reviewing legal contracts, and generally making sure the project is completed on time and within budget.

For this article, a “contract engineer" is a temporary employee hired for a specific length of time, usually a year or less, to perform a specific job, with defined start and end dates. Some positions may spell out that there will be no follow-on or permanent hire after the contract expires, while others may not mention future plans beyond contract completion.

On the other hand, some contracts may be labeled, “temporary-to-hire" or “contract-to-hire." Some companies may even require that contract engineer candidates are eligible to convert to full-time employment (FTE) without sponsorship or visa requirements after the contract expires.

For these positions, the employer will evaluate the temporary employee's performance and may or may not decide to hire the person permanently at the end of the contract period. At that time, the employee will negotiate a total salary and benefits package, which should exceed the previous contract salary.

How many engineers in the field are currently on contract?

As a contract engineer, you won't be alone - more and more employees now prefer this type of work. Nation1099 estimates that approximately 11 percent of the working adult population in the U.S. is working primarily as full-time independent contractors – a figure that includes all types of work, not just engineers.

In May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 933,000 workers were hired through contract firms (0.6 percent of total employment). Of these, 40 percent, or about 373,000 employees consisted of management, professional, and related occupations, such as computer professionals.

Contract engineer salaries

Pay rates for contract engineers vary widely and depend on the type of engineering work required.

Contract engineers with highly sought after niche skills and many years of experience may command much higher salaries than full-time permanent workers. This tradeoff takes into account the lack of paid benefits, such as income tax payments, vacation, and medical plans, though you may receive bonuses.

According to Payscale, the average pay for a contract engineer is $70,000 per year, or $40.00 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn $26.17 per hour (50K per year) and the top 10 percent earn $124 per hour ($120K per year), not including bonuses.

Gain relevant work experience

Reaching your ultimate dream job may require a long list of work experiences and technical skills. What better way to gain those than on temporary assignments? A full-time permanent job locks you in to a single employer's projects, which limits your exposure to new or different technologies, but by rotating through a series of contract jobs, you'll gain relevant work experience that enhances your resume. Some employees may even prefer to see contract engineer jobs on a resume, knowing that you've worked in the latest technology areas, such as cloud.

You may not be able to land a permanent position at one of the Fortune 500 companies, such as Microsoft or Boeing, but you might include them on your resume by working there on a contract engineering job.

Some contract positions may even specify that they will train you in certain areas. For example, one company listed a “contract to full-time" position for a gas engineering clerk – an entry level position responsible for assisting the Engineering Director while receiving training.

With a contract engineering job, you can jump-start or re-boot a career, while enhancing your resume with valuable – and varied – work experiences. You'll maintain your freedom to move around, take breaks, and try new things, while possibly earning even more than in a full-time traditional job. Consider applying for a contract engineering job today!

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