In recent years it has become quite a common practice to hire technical writers through a recruitment agency. Although Dynapro Systems, Rockwell Software, and Rockwell Automation had been my clients since 1996, on the most recent contract I did for them they hired my technical writing services through an agency. This was after a 12-year long, extremely positive working relationship! I was an incorporated technical writing consultant with multiple clients. I had turned down several offers for permanent employment with the company as a technical writer over the years. What earthly reason could they have for wanting to pay a higher rate to go through an agency?
Obviously, this was a new corporate policy, which affected my technical writing contracts with my long-time client from 2008 onwards. So to unravel this mystery, let’s take a look at what was happening in the news back then in the high tech world. Well, actually, we’ll have to go back about 10 years, to 1998:
Microsoft Loses Major Lawsuit Brought by Technical Writers
This story was brought to my attention when I raised this issue at one of our contractor meetings a while back. Some technical writers who were contractors successfully sued Microsoft to be deemed employees. Their goal was to gain access to Microsoft’s extremely generous employee benefit package. Although they won the lawsuit, their actions have had a major negative impact on the rest of us technical writers. There is now something called The Microsoft Rule which requires technical writers to work on contracts for a maximum of one year and then take a six month break, to avoid the possibility of being deemed an employee. Rockwell instituted this policy as well.
In the old days, the main thing Canadian companies worried about was the Canada Revenue Agency test for distinguishing an employee from a contractor. Companies didn’t want to get stuck paying EI and CPP for temporary workers. And contractors like me, who enjoy this way of life, were just as eager to ensure we met the conditions for being considered independent. Incorporation for the contractor was an additional step that established one as an independent technical writer.
Coming back to the present, in my experience through monitoring the jobs on monster.ca and workopolis.com, the majority of new technical writing contracts are advertised by recruiting agencies. I receive several calls a week from recruiters from throughout North America, looking for technical writers to fill positions here in BC and Alberta! What madness! It is becoming more and more difficult to be hired directly. I believe the main reason is that companies are afraid of having the same problem that Microsoft had, so they seek the protection of having a layer of bureaucracy between themselves and their hired hands.
As always, it is the worker who pays the price. For the company isn’t willing to pay a higher fee for long. (Rockwell asked me to drop my rate by $25/hour if I wanted to continue to do work for them—after taking a six month break, of course. I refused.) Recruiting agencies charge an hourly fee on every hour worked by the writer. This fee does not come out of the company’s pocket. It comes from the writer. So the rates being offered to writers are dropping as a consequence. By about the same amount as the agencies charge. Coincidence? I think not!
It’s a sad state of affairs, my friends! If any parallel between the recruitment agency and the procurer in the world’s oldest profession comes to mind, I wouldn’t blame you. I have had the same thought myself!
What value do these agencies add? Most of them don’t understand what a technical writer does and are not in a position to evaluate our resumes, skills, or experience. They offer the same type of service that the company’s in-house human resources department already performs—finding candidates, performing an initial interview (often a superficial 5-minute phone call, in my recent experience), and checking on references if the candidate is offered a position. For this, the recruitment agency takes their chunk, hour after hour, for the life of the contract. And they have a clause that prevents the technical writer from working directly for the company for a minimum period of time after the contract ends. The agency I am currently working through wanted this period to be a year, but I managed to negotiate the term down to nine months.
I would love to hear your responses to this posting. Do you agree that recruitment agencies are taking unfair advantage of technical writers in the new Microsoft Rule world? Do you see value in going through an agency? Have you had positive experiences you could share with your peers? Do you see any way to improve this situation?