The Ins and Outs of Being a Self-Employed Engineer
In the tech-focused world we live in today, engineers of all kinds are in high demand, including freelancers.
The field is projected to grow significantly over the next few years, and anyone with experience in the industry can find a good-paying job.
Engineers do everything from designing and developing technology to inspecting and maintaining it.
Depending on your area of expertise and experience, you could earn a lot of money and perks in your career.
For instance, if mechanical engineering is your skillset and you’re good at what you do, mega-companies like Google, Apple, Boeing, and NASA are potential employers.
Yet, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door, and you have to have the right engineering focus. And when you do start your job, it’s very demanding.
Instead of working for a company, many engineers prefer the solo, freelancing avenue. They still make a hefty income while enjoying the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed.
If you’re thinking about turning your career path into that of a self-employed engineer, there are some ins and outs you should know.
With these tips under your belt, you can have a successful engineering solopreneurship — quickly!
Freelancing or Independent Contracting: The Differences
Being self-employed does have some nuances. You can be part-time or full-time, a micro-entrepreneur, or a budding startup with plans to run businesses all over the world.
The first thing to decide is whether you want to be working entirely on your own or if you’d rather connect with a company as an independent contractor.
Freelancing vs. Independent Contracting: Which One is Better?
Let’s start with the similarities between freelancing and independent contracting.
Both categories allow you to set your schedule, and as long as it aligns with your client’s goals, they agree to work with you.
You set your rates, and again, if they’re willing to pay it, they hire you for the job.
Both types of self-employment require you to be responsible for your own health insurance, income taxes, and retirement. You can take a vacation and sick days any time you want, but they’re unpaid.
Either way, you are your own boss, which means they’re both excellent choices. As an engineer, the way that works best for you comes down to the slight differences.
Understanding What Freelancing Means
One of the excellent parts of being in a field like engineering is that when you’re good at your job, people want you to work for them.
As a freelancer, you’ll be in demand, but you’ll always be moving from job to job.
Freelancers tend to work for a client and then move on. If they need another task done and have a good relationship with you, they’ll contact you. Otherwise, your work with them is over, and you’ll be searching for your next client.
Freelance business owners can find jobs on sites like Upwork, Guru, and Freelancer.
Eventually, you’ll have a full portfolio, and word-of-mouth will fill your schedule to the point that you don’t have to keep searching for new work.
Comparing Freelancing to Independent Contracting
Independent contracting is slightly different.
In this role, you’re still seeking out new clients. But those who hire you will have a long-term job that they want to fill without using a salaried employee.
Picture an independent contractor as a mix between a short-term temporary employee and a freelancer.
Terms of the job, including pay, hours, and the outcome, are agreed upon before you start working. You provide the service according to those terms.
But as an independent contractor, you can outsource work to others, choose how you complete the project and work when and where you want. You’re also free to take on other engineer jobs simultaneously.
Your engineering degree allows you to choose your career path. You could be an employee and let someone else deal with things like taxes and sick days. Or, you can be your own boss and let the sky be the limit for your future.
No matter which route you choose as a freelancer or independent contractor, the great part is that they can be interchangeable.
If you find a client you want to work for long-term, and they hire you as an independent contractor, that’s your choice. And if you choose to be more nomadic and jump from small job to small job, you can do that, too!
Create a Portfolio Showcasing Your Engineering Niche
Marketing yourself as an engineer is almost like looking for a job as an artist. The term is so vague it’s hard to narrow down the choices.
What is your bachelor’s degree or specialty?
That’s what has to be front and center for potential clients to see.
From there, you can build your portfolio and market yourself as someone with a niche in your current specialization.
Here are some examples:
- As an agricultural engineer specializing in farming, your niche could be developing biofuels.
- As a civil engineer focused on designing buildings, your niche could be creating structurally sound skyscrapers.
- Electrical engineers have a massive bank of fundamentals to choose from. An example of a niche here would be specializing in robotics in the AI industry.
There are dozens of branches in the engineering field, from aerospace to automation and software development.
Whichever area is your expertise, find a niche in it and focus on that as you build your business as a professional engineer.
Yes, your degree gives you a broad scope to target. But you’ll find that as you create your online portfolio, it will be easier to build a base around a specific area and then expand from there as you grow.
There Are Some Legalities You Can’t Ignore
The path to having your own business as an engineer has a few legal hurdles to jump.
By this point, you have your degree in engineering and are confident in your skills. But you’re still not quite ready to go out on your own yet.
You still have some legal considerations to implement.
Most clients will want to know you’re registered to do business in their state legally and that you have insurance to cover the damage if something goes wrong.
To stay on the right side of the law and protect yourself from liability, first, you’ll need to get a business license. Check with your state and the National Society of Professional Engineers to determine which type of license it requires.
The most common one is the Professional Engineer (PE) license. Every state’s requirements are different.
For the most part, you can expect to need to meet four main criteria:
- A four-year engineering degree through a program approved by the licensure board
- Four years of qualifying experience in the engineering field of your degree
- Taking and passing an eight-hour examination (Fundamentals of Engineering)
- Taking and passing a second eight-hour exam (Principles and Practice of Engineering)
Most engineering programs require both of these exams before you get your degree. If you’ve already taken them, the only other obstacle would be proving your four years of experience in the field.
You’re Licensed, Now What?
You blew through the qualifications and got your license. Now, you’ll need an employee identification number registered with the IRS, and you can start charging for your work.
Getting your EIN requires you to first register as a sole proprietorship or an LLC. If you plan on expanding your business, an LLC is a smart option. Review the pros and cons of each one, then fill out the paperwork.
It can take a few weeks to complete this process. As soon as you’re approved, go online to the IRS website, and you can have your EIN within 24 hours.
Marketing Yourself is Big
The importance of marketing is so significant that mega corporations allocate a huge budget to it. You may not have the funds to hire a marketer yet, but there are a few things you can do for free or cheap.
Word-of-mouth marketing is the preferred form of advertising for consumers and businesses. It’s considered the most effective form of marketing.
If you can connect with potential clients through friends, family, and past customers, you’ve nailed this technique. This kind of marketing is easy to do by setting up an internet presence on social media, Google My Business, and Yelp.
Marketing Yourself as a Professional on Freelance Sites
Another form of inexpensive attention is how you set your profile up on the freelance sites you join.
Engineering is a diverse field with a lot of competition. People are offering their services cheaply because they’re not qualified.
You can charge more since you have experience, but your profile has to stand out and showcase your value to get noticed beyond your rates.
Some of the preferred engineering sites for freelancers include Turing, Fiverr, Devteam, and Toptal. You can use similar profiles for each site, so you’re not reinventing yourself each time.
All your accounts should include these factors:
- A catchy headline to get noticed and let people know what kind of engineer work you do (i.e., chemical engineer, design engineer)
- A professional photo that isn’t too casual or too stuffy
- Your most impressive previous work samples should be immediately visible
- The added value you give makes you worth your rates (more experience with SOLIDWORKS, specialization in the niche, etc.)
- An up-to-date resume and portfolio
- No errors; engineers should be masters at technical writing, so any mistakes in your profile will be a deterrent
Treat your profile similar to a resume. Potential clients will use it to screen you and determine if you’re suitable for their needs.
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You Don’t Have to Do it All Alone
As an employee, it’s easy to overlook the things your employer handled for you. But as a self-employed engineer, you need to cover those yourself.
Things like payroll, taxes, organization, and health and life insurance are essential parts of running a business.
You may be thinking, “I’m an engineering manager, not a business graduate.”
We get it.
Even physicians with 12+ years of school need help starting and running their practices after graduation.
Resources to Bookmark
Ready for some good news?
As a gig worker in a skyrocketing industry, you have plenty of resources available to guide you.
Bookmark these resources and refer to them as your business grows. You may not need them now, but you will soon!
An all-in-one resource for small business owners, Selfgood is a partner of the Alliance of Gig Workers. As a member, you have access to benefits like discounted health insurance coverage, reduced rates at hundreds of businesses, and legal and tax assistance.
National Society of Professional Engineers
Engineers are a tight-knit group. It’s hard to find people who think and talk on the same level you do. Joining the National Society of Professional Engineers is a fantastic networking opportunity.
Through this group, you’ll connect with others who can advise you on starting and growing your business or point clients in your direction (and vice versa).
The United States Small Business Administration is a federal organization designed for one thing:
To help you succeed.
Bookmark this site in case you need help setting up your business structure or getting funding in the future.
Engineers make a difference in the world, and your skills will be in demand wherever you go. As a self-employed engineer, the entire globe is your potential workplace.
With resources like Selfgood helping you succeed, there’s no limit to what you can do with your degree, experience, and a little good luck!