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How to ... Freelance

Your career

Freelancing is no longer the preserve of media types. Though it is difficult to pin down numbers precisely, there are thousands of civil engineers in the UK who would describe their employment status as 'freelance'. As more choose to work permanently on this basis, the description 'contract worker' seems increasingly outdated.

'The word freelance is definitely flavour of the month,' says Mark Swain, national business manager with recruitment agency Anders Glaser Wills. 'And many civil engineers are now working freelance as a career choice rather than as a stop-gap.'

There is a lot more security attached to freelancing these days in terms of both workload and financial package, he adds. 'Freelancers can get mortgages and life cover, so it's no longer just single people choosing to work this way.'

Anders Glaser Wills has some 1,500 freelance 'professional workers' on its payroll - predominantly civil engineers, but also building services professionals and architects - who it essentially subcontracts to clients. Their ages range from about 25 upward, says Swain, with numbers increasing significantly above age 30.

Freelance engineers need to be able to draw on a bank of experience, Swain explains. Although work is available at all levels - from CAD technicians to senior management - many companies are employing interim managers to fill what would previously have been permanent posts. 'Firms are looking at bringing in industry-qualified managers rather than management consultants,' he adds. 'Such individuals tend to be better at seeing a project through, offering hands-on help rather than just advice.'

Clive Shepstone is a 29-year-old freelance engineer working in the structures division at Cornwall County Council. He values the flexibility of freelance working and the fact that it allows him to work for other organisations as well. His ultimate aim is to secure work for himself, but he is happy in the meantime working through a recruitment agency. 'I moved from Bristol to Cornwall just over two years ago and initially didn't have any contacts,' he explains.

If you are going to work with an agency it makes sense to ensure your contact there understands your strengths and weaknesses, says 35-year- old freelance structural engineer Dale Price. 'Employers expect a lot from freelancers,' he says, 'You've got to be adaptable and willing to take responsibility for what you do.'

Freelance rates are not as good as they were, says Price, but both he and Shepstone admit to 'doing all right', thanks in the main to having set themselves up as limited companies.

There are three ways to establish yourself as a freelancer - via PAYE, under an umbrella company, or by setting yourself up as a limited company. Anders Glaser Wills recommends the latter option if you plan to be freelance for at least a year and anticipate earnings in excess of £25,000. It warns, however, that we are still some way from knowing exactly how this way of working will be affected by the recently introduced IR35 self-assessment regulations - legislation designed to curb 'disguised employment', where freelancers operate through one-man limited companies.

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