6 Questions to Ask Before Getting Contract IT Work Through a Staffing Company

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Staffing companies are often the first place IT professionals send their résumés after they've been laid off.  Unemployed IT pros view staffing firms—and the contract IT work they offer—as a stop-gap measure on their way to finding a full-time job. Sure, IT staffing companies can help connect IT workers to leads on jobs, but they can be difficult—if not outright dodgy—to do business with.  

Experienced IT professionals who've worked for staffing and recruiting firms gave me a laundry list of 'situations to watch out for' should an IT professional turn to a staffing firm for contract work, to make sure he or she doesn't get taken advantage of. Their advice is detailed in The Dangers of Getting Contract IT Work Through Staffing Agencies. My sources also suggested that IT professionals ask staffing firms the following questions, to help them determine whether a given project is right for them and to prevent getting burned.

1. Who am I working for? What kind of work will I be doing?

These are obvious questions to ask, but the recruiter's response to them will be telling.  For example, if the recruiter at the staffing company can't give you details about the client or the work you'll be performing, you may want to think twice about taking on the assignment, says Walter Poe, an SAP systems engineer for The Temkin Co. The risk is that you'll enter into a contract that you later wish to break, either because the work is nothing like what the recruiter described, the work environment is completely dysfunctional, or you're either over- or under-qualified for the project. Breaking a contract can hurt your reputation in the industry at a time when you're trying to find work.  

On the other hand, adds Poe, if the recruiter can give you some history on the company and project and comes off as a representative of the company, you're less likely to find yourself in a position where the recruiter has misrepresented the client and the work just to place you.

2. What are the client's expectations of me? How fast will I need to adapt to their environment.

Temp work isn't always cushy. Poe recommends finding out whether you're going to need to hit the ground running, and if you're going to be a senior person on a team or doing tech support.

3. What are the odds that this position will lead to a full-time job with the client?

You can't assume that the contract position you're taking on with a client will turn into a full-time position after three months, six months or whatever the length of your stint. That's why John Bojonny, a business continuity planning officer for AIG Advisor Group, suggests asking if the position has the option to be hired after a certain period of time. "Some contracts do that, some contracts won't," he says.

4. Are weekends or overtime required?

This might also seem like an obvious question, but Bojonny notes that IT professionals desperate for work may not think to ask the obvious.

Inquiring about overtime is important because companies will sometimes want their contractors, whom they're already paying an hourly rate, to work extra hours, as opposed to paying their in-house staff, who may cost extra. If you're not interested in working graveyard shifts or spending your weekends in a cube, ask about overtime. If the recruiter says it's not required, get it in writing and build in a contingency and pay rate for situations where the staffing firm—or more likely the client—changes its mind.

5. What happens when the project ends?

When one client project ends, the staffing firm may have another gig lined up for you. If it doesn't, you'll be "sitting on the bench," waiting for another assignment, and you may not get paid during that time.

The better and more reputable staffing agencies will provide you with technical training while you're waiting for another assignment. (For the record, my sources identified Robert Half, ICC, Comsys, Deloitte & Touch, Accenture and IBM as reputable firms because they invest in their contractors by giving them training opportunities.)

6. Can I speak with other contractors whom you've hired out to clients?

Not every staffing agency is good about paying its hired guns. To find out whether the firm pays on time (if at all), Bojonny says to ask the staffing firm if you can speak with other contractors about their experiences. He says that even though the contractors the staffing firm chooses for you to speak with will be its happiest ones, you can still get a sense of whether the firm pays on time. Bojonny adds that the big, established staffing agencies ought to be able to pay their contractors on time even if their clients are slow in paying them.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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