Contracting Life

Do I need qualifications to be a self-employed contractor?

One of the banes of being an employee is seeing an advert for a job that you know you could…

Author Photo by Kingsbridge

One of the banes of being an employee is seeing an advert for a job that you know you could do and you know you’d be good at, but the hiring manager wants candidates to have a list of qualifications as long as your arm before they’ll even pass the first sift – everything from GCSEs to professional qualifications.

Generally speaking, this isn’t something contractors have to worry about. Recruitment materials for contractors tend to hinge more on experience and networking than they do on what grade you got for GCSE French 20 years ago. But it does beg the question, do I need qualifications to be a self-employed contractor?

Well, generally speaking, the answer is no. At the end of the day, you are employing yourself in order to offer your services to clients and so as long as you satisfy yourself that you can do the job then you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone else.

Think about it this way: you need a roofer to come and fix some damage to your roof after the recent storms. You call a local roofing firm who advertises its experienced roofers and they say they’ll send someone out to you to complete the work. When the roofer arrives, do you ask to see the certificates that prove they completed their apprenticeship? No, because you are satisfied that the company you hired works with experienced roofers.

Of course, this analogy doesn’t always hold true. In certain industries, sectors and roles, it will be expected that contractors hold certain qualifications and education levels.

For instance, it would be unlikely that an engineering contractor wouldn’t hold either a relevant degree in engineering, or have completed an engineering apprenticeship. But it’s also unlikely that someone with zero engineering experience or learning would suddenly one day decide to become an engineering contractor.

Experience can be just as (if not more) important

So, while qualifications clearly are important in some sectors, for contractors it is often experience that holds sway with end clients and recruiters.

For instance, imagine you’re a hiring manager looking to recruit an IT consultant who specialises in helping organisations overhaul and implement their IT service management infrastructure. You have shortlisted two possible contractors and are looking to make a decision on which to hire.

  • One advertises that they have an MSc in Information Technology and an ITIL Master certification but only 18 months of experience working in related roles as an employee and/or contractor;
  • The other has no formal qualifications listed, but they have spent fifteen years working – as both an employee and contractor – in IT service management and has demonstrable experience of successfully implementing such infrastructures at organisations similar to your own.

It doesn’t take much to see which is the more desirable hire, especially when you may need to justify why you are choosing a particular contractor to your own managers. Experience talks. That’s not, of course, to disparage qualifications and the skill that goes into acquiring them, but experience will often be the deciding factor, especially in industries where most contractors will have a similar array of qualifications.

Learn to sell yourself

Of course, in situations where, for instance, you’ve undergone a career change, you may not have qualifications relevant to the role you now find yourself in as a self-employed contractor. You may have completed a degree in History, for instance, but then gone on to work in IT, learning coding on the job and going on to become a software developer. You then leave your role as an employee to set up as a self-employed contractor.

How do you spin your lack of relevant qualifications so that your experience can shine?

It’s all about the transferable skills. So, for example, any degree – no matter what subject it is in – will demonstrate that you have research skills and an aptitude for independent learning. You will likely have acquired group-working skills, presentation skills, problem-solving skills, analytic skills, report-writing skills and other transferable skills and this is true whether your degree is in English Literature or Diagnostic Radiography.

This is important to remember when talking with a potential client. If you’re discussing a potential contract as a software developer and they ask about your qualifications, then you mention your BA (Hons) in History and tell them how it honed your creative problem-solving abilities which is vital for any software developer.

You can even include details like this on your CV, website and LinkedIn profile so that the focus is on your transferable skills and how they relate to your experience, rather than on an unrelated qualification.

It’s never too late to learn

If you find you do need a particular qualification or certificate to advance your career as a self-employed contractor in your industry, there’s no reason why you can’t begin acquiring it now. This doesn’t always mean having to return to college or university either.

There are lots of organisations offering online learning for both formal and professional qualifications, including the Open University, and many professional certificates are achievable through services such as LinkedIn Learning, which you can access with a LinkedIn Premium account.

Just make sure you fully research any courses and providers (including how assessments are made and how the fee structure works) before signing up.

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