Jobs of the present: How David went from perm to contract

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The myth isn’t true: not all little boys want to be a train driver when they grow up. In fact, by all accounts, the majority of people with rail jobs get into the industry because they’re inspired by an acquaintance who works in that area. Certainly that was the case for David Smith, who followed a family member to Network Rail. He says it’s a common story.

David spent several years working as a permanent employee, but recently made the not insignificant jump to the world of contracting. He was placed in both his previous role at McNicholas and current contract role as an Engineering Manager at Source Design by ARM. We spoke to him about his experience of making the leap.

Just because you fall into a job, doesn’t mean you’re not suited to it

Though David may have, in his own words, “stumbled” into rail, he was looking for a change from the commercial electrical roles he’d worked for the past 12 years. He actively sought out a new industry to keep himself from “going stale”. It just so happened that he knew people in rail, but it was there that he found his vocation – on the design side.

It was while he worked within the infrastructure maintenance function at Network Rail that David realised he possessed skills that could benefit the business, and consequently the rail industry as a whole – all of which goes to show that all of us have transferable skills of some sort or another, even if you are moving between industries.

It was after flexing these skilled muscles and working with subcontractors at Network Rail, that David realised perhaps contracting was the way forward, thus starting a whole new chapter in his professional life. 

No fluffy blanket

It’s a dream held by many people: working for themselves and becoming a consultant. Increasing numbers of specialists are taking control of their careers in this way, defining their own employment terms to an extent. Often, it’s used as a way to progress up the career ladder, something David was keen to do; wanting to give himself “another gee-up and really go for it”.

Naturally, it’s a decision which requires much thought – you don’t have the same benefits and “fluffy blanket” safety nets, says David, when you’re a consultant. Aware of the risks, he sought some expert advice.

“I spoke to Adam [Razzell, ARM’s Head of Rail] before I left Network Rail. Going from a perm position’s always a bit of a risk. I explained my skill set, what I’d been involved in to date, and he applied that to his obvious industry knowledge. I was soon placed with a design consultancy.”

This consultancy was subcontracted at Source Design, which gave David the opportunity to see his future employer from all angles – a unique perspective which enabled him to make an informed decision to move to Source Design.

When asked what his typical day looks like, David says one word: “meetings”. Not something that most of us enjoy admittedly, but for David, it’s one of the best elements of his job. The opportunity to meet a diverse range of people is something he thrives on. He now has subcontractors working for him, all of whom he’s brought in through ARM (“I knew you’d get a different level of candidate coming through the door”).

Be confident and know that you’re good at what you do

The change from perm to consultant was “different in a good way…refreshing.” David has more autonomy in his role and has noticed generally in the industry that principal contractors are encouraged to make more decisions, given the self-assurance to appoint competent staff and allowed the freedom to shape how a project is run, rather than rely on Network Rail to do it.

This really highlights the importance of doing things in detail at the front end, he says, ensuring that the right people are in the right roles from the start – hence David’s collaboration with ARM from a client perspective.

So how would he advise someone thinking of going from a permanent role to contract? Without hesitation, it’s all about confidence.

“Be confident, that’s a big one, and know you’re good at what you do. You need to know that you can deliver what you say you’ll deliver because you don’t have that same level of job security; you can’t just plod along, “ he says. “But I enjoy that, it’s pushed me up and kept me on my toes.”

It helps also to have someone who can help you sanity-check the decision; in David’s case, this was Adam. They discussed in detail David’s strengths and weaknesses, and using Adam’s industry knowledge, talked about the companies where David’s skills and personality would best fit.

“I’ve only been to two interviews through ARM and I got both jobs, so that to me is testament to it working,” he adds.

Confidence and support, then, appear to be key in making the move. It’s can be a big jump, but one which pays dividends in terms of the type of work you’ll do, the compensation and the work-life balance.

How does David think it’s going? “So far, it’s worked out quite well”, he says modestly.

If you’d like to make or consider making the change from permanent employment to contract, we’d love to chat to you. Get in touch to find out more.