I had the opportunity to speak at the IEEE Central Texas Consultants Network’s virtual event about tech jobs during COVID. The audience included a mix of permanent and consultant engineers that had great questions and observations on the topic. I also touched on our original growth plans for the year, how Triple Crown has pivoted and of course tech jobs in our current market.
Original growth plan
Our plan as a company was to continue our explosive internal year over year growth within each Triple Crown office, add two new geographic locations to our footprint, and increase the overall amount of consultants and clients whose lives & projects we augment by 20% over 2019. Those plans were obviously disrupted with unforeseen challenges primarily due to COVID. As Mike Tyson has so eloquently expressed over the course of his career, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I recommend reflecting on where you have come from and where you are going as history tends to repeat. It is important to learn from the good and the bad. History is what shaped our response to COVID because we learned what to expect in the aftermaths of both 9/11 and the financial crisis in 2009.
The effect of COVID
The tech job market was so good for so long that we allowed the market to carry us as a company. I suspect much of that is true for both individuals and organizations as it’s part of human nature. When things are going great, our tendencies are to expect that to continue despite what history bears out repeatedly over time. The good times always end. The bad times always end as well. What’s wonderful about both truths is that history also tells us that the good times generally last much longer. The average length of a US recession since the Great Depression lasts approximately a year. We’re in our ninth month of COVID.
When COVID hit, our team had to raise the standards by increasing our intensity and work ethic to survive the supply and demand shift. Supply of talent immediately and dramatically increased while demand for that talent immediately and dramatically paused. The length of the pause was of serious concern. Since we only had history as a mechanism for predicting what would happen, we expected a fairly lengthy pause. We anticipated our customers to start doing layoffs and furloughs as that’s what happened after 9/11 which was more similarly stunning and abrupt in it’s impact than 2009. Instead, almost 100% of our client base transitioned their teams to work from home. We also anticipated that more projects would end early because of COVID but they truly did not. Many of the projects that our engineers were working on would be pivotal for this year and each of their future technology roadmaps. In our space, our clients quickly pivoted their ability to shift their workforce to 100% remote in many cases. That’s not an easy as a switch flip (although it very likely will be that easy in the future). Once our customers worked through the logistics, cybersecurity, and onboarding challenges of adding project based consultants, the demand returned to pre-COVID levels. At Triple Crown, we saw this begin to play out in August, 2020.
Why is COVID different?
Technology is the primary differentiator because it is bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. The fact that everyone can now work from home provides a lot more stability. Hiring managers are normally hesitant to hire a remote employee because they cannot physically see the work being done but COVID has forced us to trust more and learn how to communicate virtually. More companies are also realizing the benefits of hiring consultants on a project basis versus hiring a permanent employee. As a result, we expect to see a higher demand for project based electrical, software, and mechanical engineers in 2021. Our Q4 of 2020 is beating our Q4 of 2019 in all key demand indicators (new job openings, initial job interviews, and new contract assignments). Our customers are forecasting greater intensity heading into 2021. Because our space is technology, and technology is enabling business as usual in many verticals, those with electrical, software, and mechanical skill sets are poised for success as we approach the pandemic’s finish line and spring forward into 2021.
Questions over tech staffing
Engineer Question “if I decided to take time off during COVID to do personal things, will it look bad that I have been off for the entire year?”
Not at all and good for you for taking advantage of this time. One of the benefits of being a consultant is choosing how much time you take off after a project. If you have an unemployment gap under twelve months, you are fine but over 12 months is when we start to raise our eyebrows and get concerned. That’s true pre-COVID. It’s certainly true today. We instruct our recruiters to probe extensively on job gaps over a year because that’s the reality of what our customer’s do and it’s perfectly reasonable. “COVID” is a very acceptable answer to the question of what you’ve been doing the past 9 months.
Engineer Question “I have never worked as a consultant so how do I not sell myself short when it comes to compensation?”
Understand that you are being paid for your expertise and you are being paid to go away. As a result, you should charge more than you would expect your salary to be in a similar “permanent” role. Not only will you earn more by the hour, but you will be PAID FOR EVERY HOUR YOU WORK. You can generally add 25+% to what you were making as a permanent employee to account for end dates and down time. The market will also tell you if your compensation is too high and our recruiting staff will educate you on what we are seeing. Like anything else, charge less than average if you want to broaden the opportunities available to you. Charge more than average if you prefer to be highly selective. The more contracts and experience you have under your belt the higher compensation you make, and you will be able to take more time off after assignments. Just like anything else you sell in life, your professional service is no different. You can ALWAYS negotiate downward.
Engineer Question “Do you see companies being more hesitant hiring full-time workers and just wanting to hire consultants to keep things going?”
Yes, because there are set end dates on their projects and there is not much hassle to hiring someone on for the duration of the project. Implicit in the contract is that both sides will go their separate ways when the work is over. It’s a very honest way to approach tasks. Temporary engagements always lead unemployment recoveries primarily for this reason. In downturns there are more available candidates, and it can be a riskier move to make the commitment to a permanent employee versus someone temporary.
A phenomenon is happening where tech managers are creating more trust in their teams than micromanaging and allowing their team to hit deadlines. That’s a positive byproduct of “forced” work from home. Managers must manage on outcomes instead of process. Those who are disciplined enough to find a way to their outcome tend to thrive. Folks who embrace the autonomy of a consulting lifestyle are well equipped to take full advantage of this Management By Outcome concept that is an inevitable byproduct of a vastly remote workforce. This is another reason the industry is recovering at a rapid pace.
We took a large hit with COVID but the market, at least in the space in which Triple Crown operates, is back to pre-COVID demand levels. Overall, we have seen a pretty robust recovery for the tech industry, and we do not expect it to slow down. Get excited about your future!