This month’s question asks, “In DC especially, there are a large number of contractors working within the museum system. What is it like working as a contractor? What are the advantages/disadvantages of contracting, and how do you find out about opportunities?”
Response from Charles: Contracting is common in DC for many reasons, one of which is hiring efficiency. Contracting with an outside entity can help a federal organization pick up labor quickly without going through the entire HR hiring process. It also gives the flexibility of cutting back the labor force without having to reduce federal positions, as contracts are usually easier to terminate or to let expire than federal positions. A federal organization is also not required to cover things like health insurance for contracted employees, as the contractual relationship is entity-to-entity (company to company) and not organization-to-individual like with traditional hiring.
The complexity of contracting increases sharply when individuals contract independently. Individuals establish their own single entities as sole-proprietor companies using the SAM.gov service, and then take on entity-to-entity contracts with a federal organization. This type of contracting is particularly common in DC. In this way, the individual is a company of one staff member contracting with a larger federal organization. The individual is therefore responsible for paying quarterly taxes on their company’s revenue (their income), allocating funds for health insurance, etc.
The advantage of contracting, in my opinion, is really the speed at which a contract can be acquired. It is generally, but not always, easier to bid on a contract than it is to apply for a traditional federal position.This helps outsiders break into a field, exposing them to critical work without forcing them through the steep uphill climb of the federal hiring process.
Contract work can be very interesting and highly technical too, building considerable professional skill. The disadvantages, however, are very challenging: contractors do not have benefits and do not receive staff credentials. Contracting also tends to be feast or famine, where contracted hours bring in considerable revenue but dry periods without new contracts reduce income to zero. The instability is especially difficult for new entities.
As for finding contracts, this tends to be more art+network than science+Google. Many contracts tend to find their way to listservs through local universities or related interest groups, or even word-of-mouth. Organizations can either open contracts publicly for a bidding period (where entities submit competitive bids to budget a project) or they can go to a single entity and offer a direct contract without bidding. Long story short, some contracts will be widely disseminated, while others may only be discussed with a single entity. Bids are more common, especially for larger projects, as the competition encourages entities to shoot for lower prices in the hopes of winning the bid.