It's happened before and it'll happen again. What? - a recession, of course. In those of the mid-70s and the early 80s, few contractors felt the chill wind. The contract market was still growing at a rate that defied external economic factors.
Last time it was different. In the early 90s, seemingly for the first time, financial stringency reached the IT department and programmers and analysts joined their user department colleagues for the final walk out of the building. Contractors too felt the pinch as development projects were put on hold and maintenance was reduced to the bare minimum.
At one point it appeared that contracting was mortally wounded. Many freelancers spent time "resting" before either going permanent or taking the sort of contract that a while before would have been refused flat. Some retired early and others got out if IT. It was easy for the spivs - they went into selling mobile 'phones or personalised number plates.
Agencies and contractors don't agree on much but most concur that the current market's pretty buoyant. All the development and maintenance that should have provided steady work for us through the early 90s blew the lid off the pot and is now competing for resources with technologies (such as the internet) that were barely known about when companies last started to batten down the hatches for the recession.
When the year 2,000 arrives, the stampede for IT resources will make the evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon look like a funeral procession. To this, whether we join or not, add the European Single Currency - being driven as usual by politicians who won't have to dirty their hands with the practical aspects of their federalist fantasies.
So we're probably OK for three years' work at least. However, there are industry pundits who reckon all this uncalled-for and cost-ineffective activity will cripple company budgets and we'll be staring the next recession in the face about 2,002.
Which brings me to the point of this article - if you're not a wide-boy (or girl), don't fancy rejoining the wage-slaves, are not ready to retire or have commitments which need fulfilling, what are the options when either the market fades away or you just can't face writing another line of code? - read on.
A CORNER SHOP
What a wonderful idea - no project-manager, no irate users, just cheery customers to pass the time of day and fill the till! That's what their current owners or their agents will tell you but, if that's true, why are they selling?
In towns, people make a makeshift of their corner shop, using them for those items they've forgotten at the supermarket. At the end of the day you're unlikely to have taken enough to cover the Uniform Business Rate, let alone contribute to your next skiing trip!
Things aren't much better in the country since villages became commuter dormitories, supermarkets opened out-of-town sites and the by-pass took away the casual trade. The village shop has become an endangered species - we'll know it's been saved when we see "The Old Antique Shop" bakery.
I heard of a shopkeeper who met one of his customers in the local cash-and-carry and was asked if he'd claim back the VAT on items his customer had just bought. The shopkeeper's refusal to break the law resulted in loss of his customer. So unless you like the idea of your savings wasting away like a dripping tap, leave corner shops to the hobbyists!
A CTN (CONFECTIONERY, TOBACCO AND NEWSAGENT'S)
Here's another attractive option; never running out of cigarettes, endless candy bars and spending the day reading the sport pages! But you're the one who has a hard job getting into work by 9am - how do you think you'll fare, getting up at 5am seven days a week to make up the newspaper orders and dealing with surly paper boys and girls?
Sure, you'll have the school-kids buying their 50p's worth of sweets before and after school but will you be able to cope with the pilferage? What about the irate parent who finds their darling has lifted an "adult" magazine from the top shelf and accuses you of corrupting his morals?
If you live in south-east England it's a fair bet you've been on at least one duty-free "booze-cruise" across the Channel on one of the floating supermarkets they call ferries. Despite the best efforts of HM Customs & Excise, there are people who make a business out of duty-free cigarettes; what's more, their costs are only an old van and a pitch at a car boot sale.
As a contractor you demand double time for Sunday work - are you really going to open up for a few hours in the hope of selling a few copies of the "Sunday Times"? Of course, you're not - scrub this one!
Well, you spend most of your free time in them - why not live in one and get your living from a labour of love? Think of it - lord or lady of all you behold, convivial company and always a drink in your hand.
Let's discount working as a pub manager - the pay's worse than being a permie. That leaves a choice between taking a tenancy or blowing your life-savings and the proceeds from the sale of your house on a freehold pub.
You can always tell when the brewers think the pub market's booming; they advertise for managers. When they feel the chill wind, they advertise tenancies. Wouldn't working for a brewer be the antithesis of all you hold dear as a freelancer? It'll have to be a free house.
You soon find there's plenty to choose from - the breweries would like to off-load as many pubs as they can, especially in rural areas with dwindling populations. Between the breathalyser and the take-home trade, legitimate or otherwise, the pub's taken quite a battering in recent years.
Hold on; you're about to commit yourself to 7-day working from 8am through to the early hours of the following day! Read So You Want a Boozer by Bill Price, have a good laugh and thank God you didn't make the mistake of buying a pub.
Hard graft and taking risks are not for you - you're a contractor and you'll be one to your dying day. What else can you do without buying and selling stock, and do it perfectly legally? Better stop dreaming and start coding your next program.
© Brian Smith 1997
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