is it a good idea to be a consultant?


consulting presentation

I don’t think anyone can prove this, but there’s probably a rising prejudice against the job description “consultant”. The reason is that as long-term unemployment becomes more and more common amongst professionals, many of them have started calling themselves consultants during their unemployed tenure. They don’t actually consult – they have no clients, they have no portfolio and what they really want is simply to be able to call themselves anything but unemployed. Is it fair for Human Resources departments to almost automatically flag people with the “consultant” title as “probably just an unemployed person who didn’t wish to label themselves as unemployed?”

It’s easy to take up both sides of this argument. One, anyone can call themselves a consultant. In a society in which you need permission to label yourself a person who administers health care to birds, it’s amazing that anyone can present themselves as an expert in a field in which they may have no expertise at all. I could advertise myself as an “expert Excel consultant” tomorrow and there’s no chance my state or country would blink an eye. If I proclaimed myself an expert accountant (CPA) or expert tooth extractor (DDS) I’d have state agencies knocking at my door tomorrow. It’s not fair that anyone be able to label themselves as a consultant – that word should imply some recognized expertise.

On the other hand, why not? I’m expert at many things, in my own opinion: I’m a decent writer, I’m quite good implementing, training and using several internal audit software packages, I’m a good trainer (in multiple languages) and I am better than many in the use of Excel and Access. Shouldn’t that give me the right to call myself an expert? A consultant? A coach? Whatever the term, why can’t I offer myself up and let my skills speak for themselves?

I think it’s a disservice to the title “consultant” that so many people these days grab on to that moniker the second they are unemployed. HR departments are justified in assuming that many consultants are simply unemployed people who hang that title around their necks once they lose a job. I sympathize – simply labeling yourself as “unemployed for 6 months” is much worse, of course, than labeling yourself as an “up-and-coming consultant” over that time period. But I would recommend that anyone who calls themselves a consultant be ready with a few things when coming to an HR department:


  1. A portfolio. Anyone can prepare a portfolio, of course. But the simple fact that you prepared it means you’ve put at least that much effort into it. If you don’t have a portfolio – be it online, hard copy or even just a well-constructed LinkedIn profile – you’re not a serious consultant, and nobody will take you seriously.
  2. References. If you don’t have at least 2 or 3 former supervisors or past consulting clients who can enthusiastically vouch for your work, I wouldn’t hire you as a consultant. A consultant lives and dies off the quality of their past work. I’ve hired consultants solely off of recommendations from colleagues and acquaintances I’ve trusted, and I’ve rejected consultants who couldn’t provide those references. It’s quite simple: consultants with references thrive; consultants without references die.
  3. Proof. If you don’t have a portfolio and your don’t have references, what do you do? Have proof. Be able to back up your skills. If you claim to be an expert in Access, ask for permission to demonstrate it. If you know SAP backwards and forwards, show it. Don’t claim to have expertise in an area you don’t know. But be ready to show total command of any area an employer/client is looking for: have an idea how to amaze them ready to go.  Certification is a great help here, too.  If you can show certification in an area, you’re well along to convincing an HR department that you’re qualified to provide services.

It’s not an easy thing to tell people you’re good enough to fix things. I’ve been doing it since 2005, full-time. I’ve sold to Wall Street and the Fortune 500. It’s hard to convince smart people you’re going to bring something to the table they don’t have. They don’t like to hear that. But the simple fact is that if you’re going to present yourself as the mystical “consultant” you have to bring that little bit extra. You have to sell, you have to convince, and most of all … you have to DO. Consultants have a narrow margin for error. Employees can blame politics and teams and all kinds of things, but a consultant – especially a standalone consultant – has to show results, and soon. Don’t worry about the unemployed who call themselves consultants – distinguish yourself through your portfolio, references and proof and you’ll be on your way to a six-figure career in no time.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by markhillary

4 Replies to “is it a good idea to be a consultant?”

  1. Steve, unfortunately what you say here is true. As a project manager that has gone through unemployment and all the associated networking and people meeting you have to do when you are in that boat, I have met a lot of “consultants”. If you do a search on Linked In you will find thousands. However, I do see this as the wave of the future as full time jobs dwindle and the ones that disappeared do not come back.

    Companies have figured out that they really don’t need back every one they fired and that it is easier and cheaper to hire people on as needed basis as contractors or consultants.

  2. I read somewhere, and I believe it to be true that, employment in many fields is moving towards a mobile workforce, as well as increased use of consultants. Kind of the same principle as just in time shipping, a consultant chosen wisely, can fill a specific need and then at the end of a contract is no longer overhead.

    But as you pointed out, the consulting hat is used as filler today. I think that most consultants not up to the task can not fool a good round of HR filtering, and manager interviewing though. With increased unemployment, just about every hiring department will see an increased spectrum of good and bad candidates regardless if the job seeker is looking for salary or contract role. The best will rise to the top, and there is much more of both ends of the spectrum to choose from. From my experience, in my industry, good consultants stay busy and are highly respected. The wannabes don’t ruin it from them.

  3. Interesting I’ve worked as an Independent Consultant since 2007. Any contract I’ve had has come from contacts and word of mouth so have never had to ‘sell’ myself: I’ve lived purely on reputation for almost 5 years. Admittedly I do business in a realtively small pond and if we move to Toronto in 5 years as planned my business world is going to change dramatically. I seriously never even considered that agencies just flag the title Consultant as unemployed. Makes me glad I have a gapless portfolio.

    Anyway I think if the market is there it’s consulting is a great way to make a living. There’s some risk like any business but the rewards are great and go beyond financial compensation.

  4. On the other side, having an MBA or just about any degree proves little more than calling yourself a consultant. Having knowledge is not nearly as important as being able and wiling to use it and even knowing the end result you’re hired to create, not just the narrow task you do. People who understand how to get results that matter for those who hire them will always have a better chance whether they want a flexible contract or a permanent job.

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