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The Realistic Challenges of Self Employment as an Engineer

June 17, 2019 by Robin Mitchell

Being self-employed may sound great to many, with working hours being at your own discretion and having nobody to boss you around, but the reality can be difficult.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at the unique of being a self-employed engineer and some of the problems you could face!


Income Desperation

One of the biggest downsides to being self-employed is the lack of a stable income which, if not kept in check, can cause some serious financial problems.

While being self-employed can see a decrease in expenditure (for example, no travel costs as you can work from home), you are not guaranteed to have any income at all; you are required to seek out work and complete it to the required standard.

Some companies may be incredibly generous and provide a constant stream of freelance work, but these are far and few between. Companies that outsource design work will often pay a higher rate than those who work for that same company, but this higher pay is more times than not a reflection of the company not having to pay taxes such as National Insurance or employee benefits such as health insurance.

Taking on contract design work can also be tricky in situations where a company has half a product which requires completion and you, as a designer, must be able to accurately determine how long it will take for you to become familiar with the design, and then include that in the overall cost of the project.

This 'anxiety' surrounding income guarantee is further amplified by the fact that bad things happen all the time and this can include companies closing down, downsizing, or just no longer taking on freelancers.


There Is Always a 'Boss'

One of the most widely-advertised features of self-employment is that there is no boss or manager who can order you around, ask you to work unreasonable times, and complete work at short notice.

While this is true for some professions such as electrical and plumbing, the same cannot be said for electronics engineers. When working as a self-employed electronics engineer the type of work you do will either be on a contracted electronics design or some form of online content creation (writing articles, product descriptions, and so on.).

Each of these types of work will almost always involve a medium or large sized company that will hand you assignments that need to be completed to some standard in a given timeframe.

While they won’t be patrolling your office or looking at your internet history to see how much work you are completing, they can still present you with unreasonable deadlines and a heavy workload. Now, being self-employed you can refuse any work that you do not wish to do, however, being self-employed also means that your income is not guaranteed and therefore are required to take work on whenever you can; this is a double-edged sword and it means that you will still have a 'boss' of some sorts.


Timex branded desk clock. Image courtesy of Pixabay.


Working Hours

Another lie often promoted to those who want to become self-employed is that they can choose what hours they want to work. Technically, this is true... and is 100 per cent true if you don’t mind living on the street!

Being self-employed does not equal work when you want and anyone who is able to be self-employed knows that they will be working longer hours than in a regular 9 to 5 job.

The reason for this goes back to income desperation whereby the consultant cannot be sure when work will be available, and so it makes logical sense to take up any work available and save money for dry seasons where there may be none.


Mental Wellbeing

Another problem that can arise (from personal experience) is mental wellbeing... or lack of it.

One of the biggest problems with free time when being self-employed is that you feel obligated to work and that it can be hard to see just how many hours a week you already work. Keeping track of how many hours you have worked in a week can be very advantageous, as free time can be planned out and enjoyed without feeling guilty that you could be working.

Interestingly this negative feeling of not working closely relates to human behaviour in which negative thoughts are more persuasive than positive thoughts; you will see time off as being a negative thing because you could be earning, but when you are earning you do not see the many hours being spent.


10 and 20 Euro banknotes. Image courtesy of Pexels. 


Financial Management

While all individuals have to manage finances, those who are self-employed have an additional layer of financial management that they have to consider; tax self-assessment.

All self-employed earnings are not taxed and therefore need to be carefully accounted at the end of the tax year for taxes. While this does present opportunities for tax reduction via claiming business expenditure, it can be complex and difficult.

As stated before, income via freelance work will often be higher than those who work for a company; but freelance work does not come with any benefits including holidays, healthcare, national insurance, and pensions. All of these costs need to be accounted for and considered otherwise a life of being self-employed may result in a future financial struggle that could be almost impossible to rectify.

When self-employed, there is a huge emphasis on responsibility and discipline, things the majority of people lack. That is not to say that the majority are irresponsible and undisciplined, but being self-employed is not something that the majority would ever want to be. If they did, most jobs would be freelance-based.

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