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Careers Café

Is that contract worth your time?


Last month, I wrote about evaluating whether volunteering was worth your time. Let’s move up from unemployment to insecure employment! What do you do when you see an interesting short-term contract advertised?

My quick take is that you don’t dismiss it out of hand, and do as much looking as you reasonably can before you leap.

There’s a good reason why you should consider applying to short-term contracts. Like other effective job search strategies (e.g., networking, applying to organizations that aren’t posting a vacancy), applying to contracts can put you in a smaller group of job applicants. No one loves the idea of searching for a job, and that tends to dissuade job seekers from applying for those 3-month contracts. It’s much easier to be one of the most impressive candidates in a small applicant pool.

Many a hiring manager has begged for permission to post a vacancy as a permanent position, in order to attract a large pool of strong candidates. Not all of those hiring managers get their wish. Organizations generally try not to hire people they’ll have to fire. It’s expensive and can lead to lawsuits, and it’s a lot easier to try out a new employee on contract.

This leaves you with the question of how to sort out the truly short-term from the likely longer-term jobs. If you know someone within the organization posting a short-term contract, you can, of course, ask whether that person knows why the contract is of such a limited term. While you’re at it, you might as well ask other questions – if you can’t get the answers easily elsewhere and they aren’t sensitive enough to put your contact in a tight spot.

You can also, surprisingly, often get answers during the job interview. Typically interviewers even open the door to questions at the end of the interview. Go ahead and say that you’re curious about why the contract is for a brief term. You may find out that it’s for a parental leave (and potentially then quite unlikely to be renewed). You may learn that it’s a standard practice of that organization to post all jobs as contracts initially. Or you may find out other information that encourages you either to accept the contract if offered or to reconsider whether you want it in the first place.

I’m admittedly likely to be biased on this topic, because nearly every job I’ve had has both a) come about through people kind enough to put in a good word for me and b) started off as a really, really short-term contract. And interviewers often have been open with me about reasons for unusually short-term contracts. Interviewers have shared that a contract was for parental leave but that they (rightly) anticipated the employee would not return; that funding was approved for a short-term contract and that they (rightly) anticipated they would be able to extend the funding; that the funding for a position was connected with a specific project but they (rightly) anticipated other projects would receive funding approval; and that the role was experimental but that they (rightly) anticipated that successes within the role would lead to its extension.

There are also reasons to avoid short-term contracts, and I’ll discuss some of the common ones next month.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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