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How to keep developing your skills as a contractor

How to keep developing your skills as a contractor

Unlike full-time employment where an employee can reasonably expect to receive training that will progress their career and increases their salary, contractors don’t have the same opportunities to develop their skills on the job. Contractors are hired on the basis of their tried and tested skills, rather than their potential, and are only paid for the hours that they work.

As a contractor, you must take charge of your own career development. This means taking the opportunity to advance your skills and learn new ones in your own time. Luckily, the nature of contacting gives you some flexibility to do this, and seeking out your own training opportunities means that you don’t have to wait until an employer decides to invest in you, or compete for training resources with colleagues.

Investing in training for career development: Contractors should view training as an investment in their career development; improving your skills increases your marketability and allows you to negotiate a higher rate. There are many ways you can fit training around your schedule, whether it’s between contracts, budgeting for a short course, or using your evenings productively when you find yourself working away from home.

Take the time to research what training would benefit you before investing your valuable time and money. Research will allow you to anticipate the demand for specific skills in your industry, as well as identifying possible niche skills that fewer people possess. For Engineers and IT contractors, formal CPD or technical software courses held by accrediting bodies may be of more value than online courses and seminars.

Online courses: Learning online is a popular and cost-effective way of acquiring new skills at your own pace that can be easily fitted around your work schedule. With a huge variety of topics to choose from, here at Contracting Scout we like Udemy for its huge range of courses (over 80,000) delivered by experts, while platforms like Treehouse provide some of the best specialist courses for those wanting to expand their technical skills. The Open University is still one of the most highly regarded online providers for certified academic qualifications. For a more affordable alternative or a taster course before you decide to invest, try Future Learn, which offers online courses totally free of charge.

Developing your soft skills: Contractors who work in more collaborative industries might also consider developing their soft skills, such as courses in communication, presenting, psychology or negotiation. While the benefit of such courses might not be immediately quantifiable, these skills can improve your performance on the job, where your actions speak louder than certificates.

Cost and claiming tax relief: There are many free resources you can use to improve your skills. However if you invest in a training course, make sure you pay for it, and not your client or agency, as this could go against a contractor in an IR35 investigation. Contractors working through a personal services company might be able to claim back some training costs as tax-deductible expenses.

What costs qualify: According to HMRC rules, the general criteria for claiming tax relief on training courses requires the training to be relevant to the work you do. The course should enhance your existing skills, helping you to perform better to the advantage of the company. You’ll also be able to claim for any associated costs, such as travelling expenses and accommodation.

You can read more about HMRC’s official view on claiming training costs against your company’s profits here.

When costs don’t qualify: You won’t be able to claim for taking a university degree course or a residential course where you’re learning a new skill that isn’t immediately relevant to the services you offer. In this instance, you may be able to pay the fees through the company and claim it as a capital expense, but you won’t be able to claim tax relief.

For the difference between revenue and capital expenditure, see here.

Career development on the job: Although clients are unlikely to hire contractors who don’t already have the key skills necessary for the job, there’s sometimes room for negotiation. For example, making a case for trialling a new-to-market piece of software or equipment might work in both the contractor and the client’s favour, while choosing to work for different clients on short-term contacts across different sectors will also provide you with more variety than renewing your contract with the same client.

It’s important to bear in mind that making your choices with career development in mind could mean reducing your rate or working with fewer contracts. Although you should take care to avoid claiming to have skills that you don’t or exaggerating your skills in order to gain experience, there are other options. Working as a subcontractor on projects can be a valuable means of expanding your experience and skills. Although you’ll be applying your key skills to one area of a project, it’s likely that you’ll also gain insight into other areas and work alongside people with knowledge in different areas.

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