Contracting – Decision time for engineers

Contracting – Decision time for engineersA changing market is ideal if engineers want to take the plunge and go it alone. David Manners finds out what the employers are looking for and what the contractor needs to offer
It is the constant state of flux in the industry which breeds contractors. Companies are either in a hurry to recruit so they need contractors, or there’s a rash of redundancies and those laid off say they might as well become contractors.
So a state of flux helps swell the size of the contractor community by providing a working environment which encourages the flexibility of the freelance operator.
Pay rates for contractors are stable at the moment, though they have gone through a dramatic increase in the last 18 months. “The areas we see most activity in are RF design, Asic design, FPGA design, real-time software for embedded systems, and communications software,” says Paul White of Strata Consultants.
Pay has been a happy issue for these areas over the medium term. “In each of these areas we have seen rates increase by 25-30 per cent over the last 18 months,” adds White, “two years ago, a good Asic designer a was getting ?30 to ?32 an hour. Now people are struggling to get them for ?38-?40.”
“The whole thing seems to go full circle every six months”, says White, who has been in high-tech recruitment since 1986, “one minute we were going crazy trying to get people , the next minute they’re abundant. It’s a strange market but if people have the right skills they can pick and choose where they go,” continues White.
In the technical contracting market, between 70 to 80 per cent of the business is South of Birmingham and East of Swindon. Once you’re got out of those areas, the locations tend to be unevenly distributed with a lot of of small sites in areas like Manchester, Liverpool (which is especially good for software), Bristol and parts of East Anglia. The bulk of the work is to be found in the M3 corridor and the M4 corridor.
At STS Recruitment, John Spencer has seen an increase in the use of contractors both on the design side and on the real-time software side for embedded applications. “It’s been due mainly to an increase in the military side – there have been some large military projects going through such as Eurofighter, and Nimrod, and the submarine project Astute,” says Spencer.
“The main area is consumer digital and communications,” says Spencer, “GSM has been growing fast in the last two years. In the high-speed digital area the skills that are required are Asic, VHDL design software and DSP – both hardware and software. There is also strong requirement for RF engineers and the real-time embedded market crosses most sectors.”
For DSP people pay rates have gone up and stay good. “Typically ASIC design engineers are in the upper ?20s – say ?28 to ?35 per hour. DSP engineers get ?30 plus when starting up, rising to the mid-?40s, say ?43-?44 an hour. Real-time software people get ?30 an hour,” says Spencer.
Pay rates for straight consultancy differ from pay rates for the more hands-on activities such as designing, configuring and programming and can be as high as ?700 per day.
According to Stefan Ciecierski, managing director of recruitment consultancy PSD Technology, the most highly skilled contract engineers can earn anything up to three times the money they may earn in permanent positions. More typically the figure is around two to two and a half times. “But you must have hard experience to sell and you must be mature in your own personal outlook,” says Ciecierski.
Ciecierski also believes that with the development of specialist agencies and in particular the use of the Internet for self-promotion a move into contracting is getting easier. However, he warns: “If you are a young engineer with just six months experience in your first job and you see contracting as an easy way to double your income, then you won’t be in that contract for very long.”

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