How to Get Started as a Engineer Consultant [1]

          Consultants fill a unique role in the business landscape. They come in when they are needed, put their unique skills to use solving problems for a day or a week or a year, and then disappear back into the night (or the local airport). Sometimes we never see them again. Other times they return a few months or a couple of years later when the situation calls for the use of their unique skills.

          But where do these consultants come from? Can anyone become one? Is it easy to work as a consultant? Why do some people fail as consultants? To get these answers, we turned to the experts themselves.

Start at the Right Time

          Consultants are made, not born. The ability to become a consultant, especially in high-tech fields, comes with experience, something that you can only gain with time. This experience not only establishes people as experts, it also gives them ability to charge a premium for their services.

          “Getting the little bit of gray hair and a little bit of age tends to bolster the impression that you’re an expert,” says Larry G. Nelson Sr. of Nelson Research, a founding member of the IEEE Consultants Network.

          “I knew that I was ready,” he says, “when I ran across a company that had a problem I know I could help solve.” Wayde Gilchrist, host of Tech Start Radio, says the situation sometimes reveals itself.

          “For me, it happened when I got laid off,” reveals IEEE Senior Member Bob Gauger who consults in the reliability, availability, and maintainability field. He had already been moonlighting, so rather than find another full-time job he made the transition to full-time consulting.

          That doesn’t mean that everyone who gets laid off should hang out their shingle. Michael Bryant, who helps run the IEEE San Diego Consultants Network and operates a consulting practice called Software Synergistics, says “that’s absolutely the wrong decision.” He says if a person is direly in need of money, then “getting a consulting job is going to be financially ruinous. You need to be out looking for a job, because it takes a lot longer to make money as a consultant then people realize.”

Understand how much you should charge

          The biggest mistake most beginning consultants make, experts say, is not understanding how much they should charge. “I wish I had a better feeling for rates when I first started,” concedes Gauger. “I started off my first consulting job with too-low rates. It ended up being lower per hour than I was getting as a direct employee.”

Engineer-Consultant          Nelson says he feels too many new consultants set their rates based on their old full-time salary, which they find out too late is a mistake. “Then they realize that they used to have vacation time, health insurance, life insurance, training and all of those other things.” Add in marketing expenses and the fact that many consultants don’t find themselves working 40 hours a week and people who price themselves too low can find themselves in a bit of a financial pickle.

          “That’s the best way to get a feel of what’s being done in the industry,” Gauger suggests. “You need to know what the market will bear and what your fellow consultants are getting.”

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How to Get Started as a Engineer Consultant [2]