The rise of the remote contractor

Article By : John Ryan

Over the past two years, there has been a significant shift from ‘on-site contracting’ to ‘remote contracting’. Even before COVID-19, forecasts predicted that by 2022, the majority of the leading freelance, or contract engineers will no longer be working on client site on a regular basis...

Over the last few years project managers have been finding it increasingly difficult to find good specialist software and hardware engineers in the freelance market. This has become a critical issue across the whole market with projects suffering delays and other complications. Even if you are lucky enough to find someone who has the skills and expertise required, you invariably will find yourself in a battle against your competitors chasing the same engineer for similar projects.

So, what’s happened?

Daily rates have more than doubled during this period and it is now no longer a certainty, that you will be able to find the right specialist engineers to work on-site, even if you are prepared to pay top rates. As a result, many of the leading freelance professionals, recognising their increased value, have started looking at factors other than rate increases, to decide on which contracts they prefer to work on. The two main criteria which have emerged top of the list for many engineers are ‘exciting projects’ and the ability to ‘work remotely’. In today’s market, only companies offering exciting assignments on a flexible basis are likely to have a chance to compete successfully for the best talent in today’s freelance engineering market.

Over the past two years, there has been a significant shift from ‘on-site contracting’ to ‘remote contracting’. In 2017, over 70% of customers were insisting on contractors working on-site at least 4-days per week. Recent figures show that this figure has now dropped to less than 40% and in many cases, customers are happy for the contract engineers to work remotely, with occasional visits for critical meetings and project milestones. Even before COVID-19, forecasts predicted that by 2022, the majority of the leading freelance, or contract engineers will no longer be working on client site on a regular basis.

Communication, Productivity & Security

Even though this is a growing trend, many companies have resisted moving with the market for fear of issues relating to communications, productivity and security. Obviously, there are many R&D projects which must be implemented on-site for reasons of security, laboratory-based technology, certain types of testing etc. The vast majority of embedded software, firmware and hardware design tasks however can easily be done remotely and securely, using all of today’s modern communication tools. The one thing that has become very clear over the past couple of years is that the most successful companies delivering R&D projects effectively are those that have embraced the idea that ‘getting the best talent remotely’ is far more important than ‘getting the best talent available to work on-site’. This is also far better value and often far more efficient than contractors commuting from country to country.

So why aren’t all companies doing this?

Well, apart from a small section of projects which must be done on-site for reasons mentioned above, it appears that in many cases clients are struggling with resistance to change. Many are still using outdated policies and procedures which were designed years ago for very different times.

There is also often an emotional barrier tied to the high pricing in the contract market – you will often hear project managers say, “Well for that price, I would expect them to work on-site,” even when there is no real need for them to do so. This ceases to be an intelligent argument if the same engineer is being offered multiple opportunities for other interesting projects at the same rates, which can be done remotely. They are simply denying their projects access to the best possible talent for their project and having to deal with primary and secondary technical issues later down the line by accepting next best.

How can I begin to implement remote working?

Over the past five years, to get ahead of the market, some enlightened specialist skills providers have come up with a range of innovative solutions to make it easy for companies to move in this direction, without having to make significant upfront changes.  They are starting to deliver a range of contractor solutions from 100% on-site to 100% off-site and everything in-between. Companies benefit from a wider pool of expertise, offering superior engineering talent at lower rates providing the perfect blend of service to help them surpass their goals, faster and more cost effectively than ever before.

Through the complete flexibility of these services, contractors can be resourced to work onsite, remotely or with regular site visits. In addition, some skills providers are now offering full outsourced workforce solutions for longer term R&D project cooperation or a ‘virtual centre of excellence’ incorporating a customised blend of these services.

As the needs for advanced electronics engineering capability becomes more acute in sectors such as automotive, healthcare, renewable energies, smart cities etc., the dominant force in the resource supply chain will be driven by the knowledge and capability of engineering talent. Not exactly the ‘Gun for Hire’ model, but they will be able to choose their preferred option for project, price and location, and this is rapidly becoming the norm in today’s market.

The answer for many companies will be to use specialist skills providers who can innovate, to appeal to both electronics companies and freelance engineers at the same time, in order to ‘keep tabs’ on the right sort of skills, wherever they may be. Those suppliers which have the necessary experience in the appropriate sectors, in-house knowledge, processes and solutions to match projects with the right expertise to drive success, are likely to be at the leading edge in tomorrow’s market.

— John Ryan is CEO of CIS Electronic Engineering.

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