From DATATEKNIK, no 1 1997, page 47

Living as a freelance-consultant

Do you want to get out and work in Europe - and be your own boss? The solution can be your own consulting company.

Jobs have always been available abroad, but either you have had to work your way up in a swedish company, or be so superior that a foreign company cares to fight with the authorities to get a work permit. The difference is that Europe now has opened up: within the EU work permits are no longer needed.

The computer business is very good for those who wish to work abroad; no certification from local authorities is needed like for example doctors or lawyers, there is a shortage of skilled people, knowledge of english is sufficient in most countries and the pay is decent.

The traditional way has been to apply for an employment, but today many are working as independent consultants or their own company. Employment gives security, your own company is more risky and you also need to administrate it as well as sell yourself. But you are more independent with your own company, and can compete on your own conditions.

In general you need to have worked a couple of years in the computer business to become a consultant. Preferably you should also have the right experience. Consultants who knows the administrative SAP system has no great problems in finding work, but also Unix, Windows NT, C++, Oracle, IBM mainframe, Internet and networks are skills in demand. As of course Microsoft products.

Freelance consultants with their own companies are most common in the USA and in Britain. The rest of Europe has a more rigid work market where employment is more common. The number of freelance consultants is however growing in all countries.

There is about 60.000 freelance consultants in Britain. Most have contact with an agent, who looks for new contracts. The main advantages of such an arrangement is that the agent helps finding new projects, and that the agent is paying the contractor each month. A disadvantage is that part of the payment goes to the agent. Arrangements are different in continental Europe, where a consulting company works with a project and uses both employed staff as well as temporary consultants. The end customer does not see the consulting company as an agent for independent consultants, but as responsible for the entire project. If you get an assignment in continental Europe it usually gets extended, up to a year or two. It is also possible to get assignments in other parts of the world, like the USA, Arab countries, and Australia. Of course a work permit is needed, but the procedures are essentially the same as for example for british people, so being swedish does not put you at a disadvantage.

Not only the language is different - other habits and laws apply. Most important is probably the contract conditions and how local laws apply. To work through a british agent you have to form a UK limited company, as the agents there cannot handle swedish companies.

You must study the new country's tax system, or get a good accountant. It becomes especially complicated if you only live part of the tax year abroad, as yoy then have to pay tax also in Sweden. Another important aspect is medical insurance and pension. Medical costs are covered automatically in most EU-countries, but not all. You should make sure that paid pension can really be paid when it comes to that day, and it can be practical to collect all pension in one country.

The best paid consultants are the experienced, with specialized skills. With general skills you may get an assignment, but you cannot demand high payment. Britain does not pay as well as continental Europe.

A junior programmer may get about SEK 30.000 per month, while an experienced consultant can get up to SEK 45.000 per month, all figures before taxes, social security costs, and expenses. In for example Holland the payment can be 20-25% higher, while they can be maybe 50% higher in Switzerland than in Great Britain. But Switzerland is expensive, it is difficult to find accomodation, and it is difficult for the family to find work. The contracts are long-term, and there are plenty of contracts available for people with experience.

In the USA the basic pay is 30-50 dollars per hour, while experienced consultants can achieve 80-100 dollars per hour. But skills make the difference: is you are qualified in SAP release 3 you can charge 2000 dollars per day!

Finally the compensation depends on how desperate the customer is, what the budget is, and if the is a large supply of consultants with your skills. Over a longer time it can be profitable to accept several assignments with a lower pay, compared to waiting at home for the Contract with top pay. If you get the contract through an agent, then the agent negotiates the payment, not the contractor directly.

Another aspect is if contracting is a suitable way of life. Besides administration, invoicing and accounting, as a contractor you encounter difficulties that you avoid as an employee. Complaints from customers, for example: it may be advisable to find a professional indemnity isurance, which covers lawsuits due to contract disputes. It is also advisable to cover costs in case of sickness. There are several other insurances, which certanly are to be recommended, but which also lower the net profit.

As a contractor you have to care for your own education, and take unpaid time off to attend courses and study new versions of software. Without up-to-date skills it may become difficult to get new assignments. The customer is not buying education, but rather practical skills, so it can be wise to accept a lower paid assignment wich gives new marketable skills.

The big question have been saved for the final: How do you find your first contract abroad? If your interest is Great Britain the first advice would be to look in the two magazine which only contain advertisements from agents: Computer Contractor and Freelance Informer.

Next advice is searching the web, most agencies have pages with contracts offered. Two useful addresses with lots of jobs are and It is more difficult to find assignments in continental Europe. You have to look under Software Houses or Computer Consulting, and ask such companies if they have any interest. There are no publications directed to freelance contractors, but you can try the following: Computer Woche (Germany), Informatique 01 (France), Computable (the Netherlands). There is also an agency, Eurosoft, with offices in several EU-nations.

Jan Lien
Jan Lien is a freelance writer

The Contracting Magazines

Some British agencies