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Technical communication contracting in Europe

autumn leaves
After a particularly vicious downturn from mid-2001 through the end of 2002, the market in Europe seems to be improving. Diverse regions and industries are holding steady or even showing a bit of upswing. Alice Jane Emanuel, Director of Comma Theory, a communications company in Amsterdam, spoke to recruiters to find tips for contractors to improve their business right now.

Boom . . . then bust

The dot com and telecommunications boom of the late 1990s changed our earnings and our expectations. We chose industries and opportunities with greater freedom than ever before. Some technical writing specialists entered contracting in earnest during that time in order to benefit from the economic expansion. The world was our boomtown.

There was, of course, a downturn to counter the boom. It began gradually after the relative non-event of Y2K, reached its greatest depths after 9/11, and lasted until the end of 2002. Particularly the period from mid-2001 until the end of 2002 was a dead time when very little growth occurred.

A reshaped employment-scape

Markets exist in cycles, so booms followed by downturns are normal. But a few changes coming out of this last cycle have reshaped business:

  • Some companies disappeared entirely.
  • Some companies used the dead time to restructure, refinance, and reorganise. Nortel is an example of this, shedding 40,000 employees in their re-org.
  • Some companies, notably Hewlett-Packard, are undergoing a version of the re-org process now in order to catch up to the leaner market.
  • In general, business is more cautious now, throwing less money around, eliminating expenses, and squeezing more out of employees.

Technical writing has also been reshaped:

  • Technical writers are more cautious, taking fewer professional risks, staying in employment positions longer, and taking full-time employment or long-term, rolling contracts over shorter positions.
  • Some technical writers have moved laterally within their industry. Some with technical skills have moved into technical roles. Some with business skills have moved into business-analysis or functional-analysis roles.
  • Some technical writers used the dead time to re-skill or to develop richer niche skills.
  • A certain number of technical writers have left technical communications permanently.

State of the market

Companies are moving forward again and, albeit gradually, employment opportunities are emerging. Mark Clifford, Director of Clifford Sells, an employment agency specialising in documentation and with offices in both France and England explains, “Fewer people are responding to job postings. More people are staying in their situations and some people have left technical writing.” Frank Van Alten, Managing Director of ExecutiveSource, an employment agency with offices in The Netherlands adds, “The market has gone from broadly recruiting to narrowly selecting. Fewer contractors are professionally active, but there are fewer roles out there for them, too.”

Security is not really security

Of course, many of us want to stick to whatever job security we can find for as long as we can. “This leads to the Staleness Factor,” says Van Alten. “When you stay in a safe job for too long, you cannot refresh through change.” The result is that you become de-skilled and your market value decreases. This is a particular problem now when so few companies are investing in employee professional development.

Big cities are best

Large metropolitan areas and capital cities are still the best places to find good opportunities for contracting. See the sidebar for industry tips.

What industries look good right now?

This industry: Looks good because:
Electronics (especially semi-conductors) Electronics in general, and the semi-conductor industry in specific, are in a lively market cycle, making them a good place to be a contractor right now.
Financials Consistently offering the best rates and some of the more interesting projects, financials are a good place to be a contractor right now.
Content management The back office of documentation is currently in a growth period; this is a good place to develop skills and create a career niche right now.
Telecommunications The darling employer of the 1990s, telecoms is making a lesser comeback as a place where contractors can provide documentation maintenance. If documentation updates are your niche, this is a good place to be a contractor right now.
Process and procedures With the concept of being ‘in control’ essential in all industries since recent major corporate scandals shook the foundations of audit and accountability, process and procedures have experienced something of a surge. If P&P is your niche, this is a good place to be a contractor right now.

Tips for contracting

In no particular order. . .
Be choosy about the positions you pursue. Do not flood the market with your CV. The last thing you want to hear when you present yourself for a job you’d really love is, “You, again?”
Skill up. Keep on top of your field of expertise.
Niche. No matter how much of an all-rounder you know yourself to be, select a niche and focus on it.
Know your limitations. Don’t pursue a niche or a position that is wrong for you or that you really dislike.
Know your industry. Learn all you can about your chosen industry so you can provide your clients with real depth and breadth of knowledge.
Deliver value that clients understand. If you are experienced enough to be able to deliver quality work faster and more accurately than the other contractors out there, tell clients plainly that they will save money with you. Nothing speaks more clearly to an employer than concrete savings.
Refuse Hell Clients. Clients who are impossible to work with. Clients who do not pay. Clients who do not respect your work. You know who they are; trust your instinct to turn them down.
Learn the other language. The language of documentation is usually English but the language of business and of R&D in your place of work may not be. Make everyone more comfortable by learning the other language, even if it is just a few courteous words.
Market your business. Business cards, websites, e-news, thank-yous, postcards, imprinted gifts for clients, cold calls to potential clients, free consultations to interested leads, follow-ups to existing clients, and advertisements in industry publications are all ways to market your business.
Network. Become someone to know in your business community, your technical writing community, and your niche industry. Then, maintain it. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.
Delegate non-core tasks. To free yourself up for the core activities that earn your keep, delegate administrative tasks, book keeping tasks, and other non-core activities as much as you can. If you cannot afford top-tier professionals for these tasks, hire a graduate student or an intern for dedication that costs quite a bit less. Remember that anyone working for you should sign a non-disclosure agreement and should be legally entitled to work for you.