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Contract Employment: Keeping Your Options Open

Are you one of those unfortunates who, despite knocking around for a job for several months now, still sees no promising prospects ahead? Whether you are a fresh graduate hunting for your first "real" job or a recently axed mid-level professional looking for your next one, securing that ideal position in the current employment climate could be a real test of patience. Like most job seekers, your primary goal is probably to get a regular full-time job. But as the unemployment rate continues to climb and the economic outlook remains gloomy, openings for regular jobs have been dwindling. Should you continue waiting for that elusive ideal job? Why not consider contract or interim work instead? Rather than sitting idle, you could use the opportunity to explore your options.

Although the flexible (i.e., contract) workforce has traditionally made up only a small portion of the staffing market in Singapore, times are changing and the number of temporary opportunities is steadily rising. With increasing economic volatility, many companies are downsizing to focus on core competencies and are becoming increasingly dependent on contract workers to tide them over periods of increased demand. Contract employment options are offering employers more flexibility in meeting their workforce needs, and they don't strain their staffing budgets.

More specifically, companies might need to bring in contract workers to expedite completion of certain projects or simply fill gaps left by permanent staff that might have been relocated temporarily. Some companies occasionally take in highly specialized contract employees with proven track records just to ensure the efficient set up and implementation of, for example, a new operational system. Such employment contracts could be anything from a few months to 1 year in duration.

Contract research organizations serving the pharmaceutical industries often recruit clinical research associates or data management professionals for specific short-term projects. Engineering and information technology firms likewise often recruit contract employees to carry out short-term engineering, systems programming, and software implementation and validation work. Even manufacturers periodically recruit contract employees, sometimes in large numbers, to get through temporary workforce shortages. Currently, with the many new government-supported initiatives, research centres across the country offer another source of project-based contract jobs to technologists, scientists, and engineers at various levels of their careers. Those government grant-supported contracts are usually of a slightly longer duration than other contract employment opportunities--Depending on the nature of the projects, such contracts, sometimes offered on a year-to-year basis, could be renewable for up to 3 years.

Sadly, though, many professionals in Singapore still do not appreciate the benefits of contract-based work. Often, such jobs are viewed as insecure second-rate jobs, or even next to being unemployed. But that perspective overlooks the positive side of contract employment.

Although contract work is unlikely to be a job seeker's primary goal, it is certainly a viable alternative worth trying. In the clinical research industry, for example, contracting is an extremely valuable mechanism through which you can gain a wide range of experience in the many therapeutic areas. This is particularly important if you are in the early stages of a career, because it provides an excellent way for you to identify your areas of strength and interest within the industry. Other than the nonpermanent nature of the job, contracting can be as exciting and even more challenging than a regular job.

If you are keen to try out a contract, look out for opportunities in your area of expertise. List all the open positions and evaluate your options. You can then customize your resume to fit the jobs that most interest you. Be specific about your skills. Contract employers are often more interested in relevant skills and experience than your education history. They just need someone who can do the job within the specified time. As the relationship is expected to be mostly short term, employers often do not build in training time for contract employees. Very naturally, they often prefer individuals with the right combination of skills and those who are highly independent.

If you decide you'd like some help, you can always engage the help of recruitment professionals. Seek out a reputable agency that will represent you in a professional manner. Although all professional agencies are supposed to be experts in employment terms and conditions, it is your responsibility to check out all details about the job before you sign any contracts. Contract employees are often not eligible for all the benefits enjoyed by permanent employees, but local legislation does provide basic protection for contract employees, including employee provident fund contributions. By and large, companies do not provide contract employees with the same range of perks and benefits they do for their permanent staffs, but they do generally pay them reasonably well.

As for most contracts, the employer-employee relationship lasts only as long as the assignment does. In rare occasions, employers might promote exceptionally talented individuals to permanent positions. But in most cases, contract employees are released when their project is done. Short term though the contracts may be, a contract employee can always build up credibility by carrying out cutting-edge assignments. Over time, you may well acquire a broad range of highly marketable skills--exactly the skills and experiences you need to propel you toward your ideal career goal of a permanent position.

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