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Holidays? Subject to contract

Fancy the freedom of becoming an IT freelance? Just try taking a few weeks off, says Lynne Curry
The money's good, the work's plentiful and the freedom - they say so themselves - is the best bit of the job. The sun is shining and the days are long. Why not recapture a bit of post-university reckless exhilaration and take the summer off?

From the world of the British freelance information technology professional, there arises a collective hollow laugh at the very thought. Mark Cooper, a contract analyst/ programmer currently spending the summer inside the confines of British Steel in Scunthorpe, tried it once. He and his girlfriend, Sharron, now his wife, hired a yacht in Corfu and planned seven weeks of Greek sea and sun. But the week before he left, a new contract came up. It was 20 minutes from home instead of 150 miles. The holiday was lopped.

There is a psychological barrier in the British IT workforce that militates against taking time off beyond a respectable couple of weeks, even when they are - in theory, or else the taxman would like to know otherwise - masters of their own destiny.

Australians do it, New Zealanders do it, South Africans do it, but British IT managers raise an eyebrow at a freelance whose availability is constrained by her or his desire to go AWOL for the season. Britain takes its psychological lead from the US, where, says Alan Seldon, of Barnet-based agency A&P, the workplace axiom is that home life is "a nasty interruption to work". Seldon adds: "If you want to know what it's like to take the summer off, ask a teacher."

Jill McAvoy, of Robert Half Consulting, says the British workforce is "culturally unfamiliar with the idea of long breaks, and definitely apprehensive."Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans do it. They're over here to do the tour and they've already chucked in their jobs and held their nose and jumped.

"The Brits don't. They take their holiday when there's a gap in the work. Some work for two years without a holiday." McAvoy says. "They don't know when they're next going to have any work and after the recession, they make hay while the sun shines. A lot of them are in it to make the money and to learn skill sets quickly and to keep their skills up.

Freelance Ian Fazakerley has just taken off his first two weeks in six years. He and his wife visited Central America; while he was there he worried not only about all his computer equipment - he works from home - but about his three regular customers.

"The only way I could take the summer off was if I didn't give a toss about the customers I was losing," he says. "The agencies want you to be available when they want you. If there are two contractors, one available 52 weeks and the other 25, who will they take?"

Although he does work through an agency, Fazakerley says freelance consultancy has more constraints than staff jobs. "It's not an article you can sell then be finished with it. Once you've done it, the customer either breaks it, can't use it or it needs to be modified."

Barry Roback, managing director of specialist accountants JSA Services, which looks after contractors' finances, says contracting is not like temping. "The theory of being free to get up on a Monday morning and decide you're not going to go to work today is all well in exercise books, but harder in reality. These contracts generally are for six months, which is then extended. Clients and agencies don't take very kindly to being told that you're going to take a few weeks off."

Yet freedom features highly on the perceived advantages of being freelance. A survey just issued by Software Personnel has identified it as the second - if not the first - reason for leaving the staff payroll. But 70 per cent of companies use freelances for over six months.

The freedom, according to Roback, is within the job: "Contracting provides much more career freedom in terms of picking and choosing where and how you wish to work. The rates are good because the industry itself pays more than for the comparable job, non-contracting. It is a tax-efficient way of earning your income through a one-man limited company."

Mark Cooper, who failed at his one attempt at a free summer, still maintains it can be done, with sensible financial planning. "I'm taking three weeks this year, but it helps with company accounts to have a cashflow throughout the year rather than having no cashflow for six to eight weeks.

"When you go freelance your lifestyle can change so much, but I learnt my lesson and now make sure I always have enough money to live for a year without a job."

He recommends having the new, post-holiday contract lined up - with the knowledge that at least until the year 2000, there will be no shortage of workn