A ticket for the gravy train

IT contracting; Agencies are finding it pays to keep freelancers ahead of the learning curve.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Only one problem faces freelance information technology people as they hurl themselves towards the salary gravy-train currently whistling through the industry: how do they catch it?

The passport to riches unheard of in the history of the business comes with having the right skills, and it is as important for the IT agencies - whose income depends on it - that freelancers have them.

The result is increasing ingenuity from agencies which hope that helping contractors to acquire the current key skills will keep the most princely earners on their books - and from training companies that want to attract freelancers as well as company staff members.

It can be an expensive undertaking. A four-day course on Delphi application development run by the training company Learning Tree International costs pounds 1,335. Although many contractors are earning about pounds 1,000 a week, this is no mere trifle.

Learning Tree, an American company that has been in Britain for 22 years, is about to announce a UK turnover expected to be pounds 17m, up on last year's pounds 13.5m. But David Pardo, the UK managing director, says the company could not have sustained this performance if it did not respond to the needs of the companies that send people to its education centre in London.

"As well as constantly testing out what we're doing, we know that several British universities base their undergraduate and postgraduate curriculums at least in part on the changes in the Learning Tree catalogue. We obviously have to work very hard at developing the right courses at the right time - we're not into crystal-ball gazing."

Learning Tree is, however, into anticipating changes in the market, and has incorporated a less expensive option for freelancers. On a pounds 3,590 "training passport", costing the equivalent of three courses, an individual can attend up to 10 within a 12-month period. "This gives very good value and, over 12 months, reasonable flexibility to schedule courses around assignments," Mr Pardo says. A "significant minority" of about 15 per cent of Learning Tree's 18,000 participants are one-man businesses.

The contract agency CSS Trident, part of the acquisitive Parity group, gives its contractors discounts with its sister company, Parity Training. A gold card, the most valuable of the three on offer, will secure up to 66 per cent off the full price. "CSS is seeking to offer a value-added service which is going to be of help in building a contract career," a spokesman says. "It develops goodwill for us but nevertheless has a reality about it."

Contractors helped Parity Training to a turnover of some pounds 8m last year, and the overall Parity group to pounds 6.5m profits in 1995. The group launched Parity Training in 1995 through the merger of two acquisitions, to give it a toe-hold in the training market.

Smaller companies without a major sister training company are using other methods to introduce a training element. RHI Consulting, another British child of a major American parent, has also brought over Infinity, an advanced technical programme for its contractors. It can offer up to 100 self-teach courses, free to freelancers who have worked through the company for a minimum time.

Suzzane Wood, a director of parent company Robert Half International, says the service is to ensure clients are sent freelancers with a command of all the skills they need. "We don't know of anyone else who is doing this. They offer skills testing but not skills enhancement."

Software Personnel, a long-established agency, is putting together a scheme through which it pays a contractor's basic living costs and fees while they take time off to attend a course. The course fees are then recouped over the length of the ensuing contract. The domestic contribution is not recouped, though it will be built into the financial equation somewhere.

Clive South, the marketing manager, says courses will normally be offered to people only when there is a near-certainty of a contract at completion - although if this falls through, Software Personnel will not seek to retrieve the costs

Learning Tree (01372 364600), Software Personnel (01203 690966), RHI Consulting (0171-836 3545), CSS Trident (01442 240761).