Contractors have to deal with this a lot, so I wonder why there isn't some underground website like glassdoor for contracting agencies. If contractors shared information, we'd ideally weed out the bad agencies, though of course the reality is much more difficult than the theory.
Re: Only picking honest agencies
I like your intentions of not working with agencies that don't disclose their margins to you. If they won't tell, you, that's sort of an admission they're screwing you, isn't it? Unfortunately, I have encountered a couple issues in this approach.
- The number of agencies that will provide full transparency in billing is about the same as the number of honest politicians and car salesmen out there. That is, there are indeed honest salesmen and politicians but they are rare. The margins to be made in the human trafficking trade for IT are too high and too easily had to give up to the status quo of doing things the old way.
- If the honest vendor doesn't have a spot on a client's approved vendors list, well, you'll find the sad truth that honor and a dollar might not be enough to buy a cup of coffee. You have to play the game sometimes, and that means going with an agent that has a connection. When you're between gigs, and if you don't already have an absolutely ripping network of your own, then you don't have a choice. You depend on them, they get you a job, and they make a boatload of money off you. I agree it's unnerving at times to think that you're the one in the trenches doing the work and they're making anywhere from 20 to 50% of the rate. Heck, it's more than unnerving, it ought to be illegal, like indentured servitude or sweat shops, but the alternative is worse: you could both be making 100% of zero. At the end of the day if you're getting a good rate and able to take care of your family, be thankful.
Re: Picking the agency with the lowest commission
This seems too like the logical choice, doesn't it? Of course, knowing this depends on the agency being honest. Even if you can find and compare the rate breakdowns, you'll have to take into account a variety of other factors, just as you would with any potential employer. In other words, it depends. Consider these options:
- Vendor A has a 10% margin and goes corp-to-corp with you. No other benefits or assistance. It's an individual business where the guy has a few contacts in some companies that trust him and he himself is still a consultant programmer that works, so this is something he does on the side to bring in a little extra cash and help out friends when he can.
Vendor B is a typical mid-sized body shop. They take a 35% margin, though you don't know that because if they're truly typical, they won't tell you. But they are very established, they have lots of agents working with nearly every major company in the city and they offer a few benefits:
- They'll record you as an employee so your tax paperwork is taken care of and they pay their share of the employment tax.
- They check in on you regularly and buy you a nice lunch and keep you up to date on the goings on with the client. Maybe they can clue you when something is going to happen and can help get your next gig lined up so you have minimal downtime.
- Access to the company 401K. They won't match for employees paid hourly, but you can invest with no additional administrative costs
- Group health care plan. You pay the premium, but it's better coverage than what you get with an individual plan.
- Training provisions (this is a bit of a pipe dream, but I have had vendors that reimbursed books or paid for a class once in a while).
- Company-like atmosphere. Ok, now this is a reason a lot of people actually leave full-time jobs and go consulting, but others may appreciate company gatherings, a nice holiday party that you attend with your spouse, regular happy hour events, and a general sense of belonging to an organization.
- Work insurance. I forgot the formal terminology for it, but some clients require contractors to be insured for cases of severe misdeed (you got a support call at 2am and typed "Delete from customers" on accident). Some vendors will take care of this for you.
Vendor C is a huge corporation. You won't know what their margins are but they'll be disgustingly high to account for their overhead, you'll probably get a salary instead of an hourly rate, and they'll have a presence around the world (think Accenture or EDS). Their sheer size means it's a total crapshot how you'll be treated but also means you'll have decent healthcare and plenty of process cruft.
There's no doubt Vendor A gives you the fairest shake on the rate, assuming all three vendors negotiate the same rate from the client (and that's not a guarantee, Vendor B and C may have leverage or more persuasive agents). If you can string together a lot of gigs with Vendor A, you'll do really well and be able to buy all of your own benefits. The tradeoff to take a job with Vendor B or C will cost you but unfortunately, I have found that in some cases you may only be able to get a job with a B or C. And while I sporadically encounter vendors like Vendor A and Vendor C, there's a large continuum between them where the various Vendor Bs can fall.
In conclusion, I don't think your rules are wrong at all. But you will encounter times when it doesn't always work out. You might have to bend those rules on occasion.