The Contract Employee—America’s New Working Man and Woman: Part Two

The four-part article on contract workers continues with a number of case studies.

By LAUREN WEBER, September 14, 2017 for the Wall Street Journal

No one knows how many Americans work as contractors, because they don’t fit neatly into the job categories tracked by government agencies. Rough estimates by economists range from 3% to 14% of the nation’s workforce, or as many as 20 million people. The surge might help explain a riddle of today’s labor market—jobs are plentiful, but many Americans feel anxious and insecure about their finances and careers.

Some contract workers say they like contract work for some of the same reasons companies do. Kara Sanders, 36, says it feels like contractors “have control over our destinies by putting ourselves out there and taking risks.”

She says she chose contracting after watching round after round of corporate layoffs hit family members and friends, while growing up in upstate New York. She has moved cross-country three times for data-analysis and consulting projects. She also is finishing an online master’s degree in data science.

“I don’t think it’s ever safe to let your skills atrophy or become too tied to one employer,” says Ms. Sanders.

People usually don’t go looking for contract work. It finds them.

Fernando Granthon of Austin, Texas

Fernando Granthon, 35, saw an outsourced human-relations position at Cisco Systems Inc. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., as a foot in the door. He says a recruiter at staffing agency ManpowerGroup Inc. told him contractors had a strong chance to get hired as Cisco employees.

The son of immigrants from Peru, Mr. Granthon grew up poor in South Florida, joined the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school and worked as a personnel clerk. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the age of 30 and was eager to parlay his experience into higher-level human-resources jobs.

At Cisco, Mr. Granthon worked on a team of employees and contractors who answered HR queries. He says he felt valued and trusted.

In 2014, the company split up the team. Outside workers including Mr. Granthon got simpler job duties than employees, he says. Worried that his career was stalling, he asked a Manpower representative about training opportunities and was told nothing was available. The same answer came when he pressed about getting a full-time job.

He left Cisco in 2015. Mr. Granthon didn’t receive a pay increase while working there. He is now pursuing an M.B.A. at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

“I realized there was no mobility,” he says. While he is grateful for the experience he gained as a contract worker, Mr. Granthon says he wishes bosses had realized that “contractors, like any other employees, want greater experiences, want to learn, and to move on.”

Manpower declined to comment on individual employees but says it offers workers free online training programs. Cisco declined to comment.

 Neil Gimon of Waxhaw, North Carolina

Just asking about job openings can be risky, says information-technology project manager Neil Gimon, who for years has taken contract jobs that he hopes will turn into a full-time position.

“The manager says: ‘You’re unhappy with this position? What’s going on?’ ” says Mr. Gimon, 53.

When the manager at a recent assignment with Wells Fargo & Co. sent around job openings, contractors were steered to a general website, while bank employees got to apply through an internal system that reveals details about the hiring manager and human-resources contacts.

The bank says nonemployees “are subject to Wells Fargo recruiting requirements in the same manner as any other external job seeker.”

Last year, Mr. Gimon and his wife, Anita, opened the Dreamchaser’s Brewery in an old firehouse in Waxhaw, N.C. If all goes well, he will stop doing contract work. “I’m tired of being laid off,” he says.

While job security has ebbed in all walks of corporate life, many employees get a relatively stable paycheck, benefits and often some help to find a new job if they lose the one they had. Contract workers are on their own.

This article will be continued in future blogs.

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