Freelance engineering

Tips for Starting a Career in Freelance Engineering

Freelancing as an engineer continues to gain traction across multiple industries. Here are some common-sense approaches to make it work for you.

You don’t hear too many stories today about a student graduating with an engineering degree and staying in the same company until retirement, even though it may be desirable for both engineers and companies. Companies might have fluctuations in workloads. Or employees might simply like the freedom and constant changing skill set needed to perform in multiple roles over time. This article offers tips on how to acclimate to the new trend of nomadic engineers and links to websites that can assist you on the freelancing path.

Keeping engineers on contract, or freelance, can help keep companies flexible, shrinking and expanding their workforce to match workload fluctuations. Unfortunately, companies will have to be careful if they have sensitive intellectual property. While contractors can sign nondisclosure agreements, it still may put their communications, etc. on a computer that’s not controlled by company. This might make some companies leery of going the freelancing route.

On the other hand, employees might like the freedom of freelancing, being able to work project to project with time to travel or dabble in startups in between. In addition, some people want to be more independent and continue to expand their skills. After working in the same job for five years, you might be a bit rusty in other parts of your engineering education—does anyone remember Laplace transforms?

Engineering is moving toward a service- or per-project-based approach. This could benefit engineers in every field of application by providing the necessary freedom to manage their time, decide which project is more relevant to their expertise/expectations, and finally reducing dead times caused by the internal processes of large companies.

Freelancing can help large companies be flexible, and keep engineers’ skills on point. If you plan to be a freelance engineer, you need to consider these skills and other factors:

Management/consulting: Supporting existing management, leading special teams, helping with budgets, cost projections, creating and managing spreadsheets, developing capex proposals, etc.

Design: Machine design, factory layouts, process development, design of experiments, solid modeling, finite element analysis (FEA), and computer-aided design (CAD) simulation/animation.

Drafting: Having access to CAD software can be imperative. If the company has a license, it could be possible to access the client’s software. Being armed with CAD software capability can add a lot of value—some small companies and startups hiring an engineer just for CAD design because the licenses can be expensive.

There are free CAD packages online, but some companies might not be proficient or have time to devote to this area that leads outsourcing. In addition, the reason you normally get those programs for free is that everything you design with the software will be presented as public domain on their site. Many companies may not want to lose IP or let everyone have their prints for their parts. However, depending on the work, it could be a solution. Ultimately, finding a way to buy or share a license will make your more valuable as a freelance engineer.  

Writing: Writing skills are probably the most important factors in working with major clients. There are examples of short engagements turned into years of steady work. Communication is crucial, and much of it today involves writing. In one example, an estimated five-month job to help create a large, detailed proposal ultimately led to 12 years of steady work due to writing abilities.

Certifications: Certifications are important, too, but will be specific to the jobs you’re seeking. Some engineers are registered PEs, but over time dropped their license. Ultimately, they simply never worked a job where it was required to certify any documents. Otherwise, the skill that’s held in high regard by some experts is knowing how a part will likely be manufactured, both at the prototype stage and in mass production. Using that knowledge during the design phase leads to good part designs in less time. On another front, basic machinist skills seem to repeatedly pop up in interviews.

Insurance: This wasn’t a large concern for many of the people interviewed by Machine Design.

Healthcare/benefits: The instability and loss of benefits seems to be the biggest hindrance keeping engineers from working for themselves, as well as starting their own company. If the U.S. figures out a way to get people better healthcare at an affordable rate, innovation in the U.S. and startups will likely grow at an exponential rate, leading to much more diversity and strength in the U.S. economy.

Networking

Your network will be your lifeline. Get out and get active with engineering communities, or start your own. Sites like Meetup.com might seem more for social engagement, but it works. Social media is your friend—start a LinkedIn.com resume, or write some articles about your knowledge on these sites. Start a Facebook page, Twitter account, etc. You must be your own promoter—you can be the best engineer on the market, but if no one knows that, it’ll be hard to find work.

There are sites geared toward freelancing engineers than social media, though. The following are some handy sites to consider:

People as a Service: Rolf Ritter has written a book The Future of Work. His belief in freelancing becoming a major growth industry led him to start a company that allows people to set up profiles, networks, and shop for work. Signing up on sites is a great resource, and I have yet to find  one that isn’t free. Some might be new and not have much work. However, make sure your profile is there and that you check in regularly, to ensure that you’re actively listed when companies post jobs.

Kkooee.com: A growing trend on these sites is team building. If you don’t have all of the skills needed for a project, you can team up with people that do and bid on larger projects. Kkooee.com and People as a Service offer this valuable feature.

Upwork: While known more for writing, Upwork.com does host engineering freelancing, too. Using all of the networking and resources the internet has to provide will help you keep your eyes and ears on the industry. In addition, you’ll see what type of skill or certifications companies are asking of freelancers. 

Quality control is important, and some sites offer the ability to leave reviews. This can help build up your freelancing Karma, and give you the opportunity to comment on companies that were good or difficult to work with. This review feature will be imperative to selecting the right team and companies to work with.

Also, GURU.com, MFG.com, and CADCROWD.com might come in handy. However, if you have never had a manger position or handled projects before, time, money, and the non-engineering parts of freelancing can bog you down. Make sure you leave extra time to plan.

Freelancing Management

Time is always a critical factor. Clients want fast, good, and cheap. You have to create realistic goals, and communicate openly with your client. Ultimately, remember the lowest bid often wins, but don’t low-ball yourself into the poor house. But don’t think you’re a rock star either.

As you move from job to job, time will be taken just to understand what you’re doing. You may need to learn or brush up on skills. Adding this time to the clients tab might put your bid over budget. Remember, you are building a network, and your skills as a freelancer. This is important, and can build strong relationships. Consider this addition time as part of the gig. Freelancing isn’t for everyone. If the non-engineering and relationship-building sound awful, you might want to reconsider this opportunity. Sometimes having a paycheck is just easier.

Don’t get upset with low offers. This is normal procedure for companies. Be prepared to see low offers, and be prepared to possibly take them. Freelancing can be a feast or famine market, especially when starting out. You might have to take some jobs you think are too cheap or beneath you. If you are hungry, and don’t have many other options, you might find yourself taking one of these jobs. This will build your resume, show your skills, and ability to self-manage a shoestring budget while getting great results at a competitive cost. 

Lastly, use available technology. Google docs, One Drive, and other cloud services can keep everything in one location, streamline communication, and promote transparency. It will be imperative to have one location to help organize multiple projects and communications. This will provide a clear roadmap to what is expected from everyone involved, when deadlines are coming up, and more. Learning to use these systems is easy, and often a quick internet search will yield an explanation on how to do what you are trying to accomplish.

Many of the jobs falling into the skills gap are STEM-related. As the skills gap increases, freelance engineering could very well become more mainstream. This trend is popular with engineers old and young alike. Young engineers are using freelancing to build resumes. Older engineers use their experience to grab larger jobs to become a bit more independent, work from home, or just have more control of their time. Freelance engineering isn’t a new concept. It is essentially like a micro-consulting group. If both parties work openly and honestly, freelancing could be beneficial for everyone.

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