30 May Double Down on Yourself. Know What You Are Worth!
When I started freelancing again after six years of work in a staff position, eighteen months ago I asked old and new colleague friends about their current fee ranges to adjust my expectations and be able to plan a budget for my new freelance contractor life. I was moving from the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Tri-State area to Illinois where I last freelanced in 2012.
I had a full-time job in New Jersey until November 2021, where the cost of living is higher than in the Chicagoland suburbs, so I expected the average hourly fee to be lower than in Jersey. I also knew that my fees were probably obsolete, in the sense that they were not that well informed because I only took freelance work sporadically.
Less money for the same work ten years later?
I was quite shocked to hear that some of my colleagues were not only not charging more than when I left, but also that some were even billing less for the same work and for the same contracts (agency-governmental ones) we all worked on together in 2012. Their livelihood had decreased! How was that possible with inflation the way it stands and with the deteriorating global economy?
So, for my calculations accounting for a lower cost of living in Illinois (I used -35% to be conservative although my research showed -42.3%), I needed to earn enough to cover all my expenses, at the very least the basic ones if I wanted to survive for now and thrive hopefully in the near future. I determined that I needed to bill $3,000 per month to break even.
I have worked with a few Illinois agencies since I started interpreting in the mid-2000s and although not often, I continued to cover assignments for some, so naturally I turned to them for work. I accepted the slight increase I was offered to have a base, but after making my financial calculations, I increased my fee for all my clients to what I considered a pricing model and fee structure that resonated with my experience, my training, my credentials, the competitive landscape, the market’s demand, value, the level of difficulty, the cognitive skills needed, and the quality of my work.
Share the love; there is plenty to go around!
At first, when I talked privately to colleagues about the range of my fees, some seemed incredulous. However, all it took was a few referrals their way for them to realize that the market can really pay a good price for professional work.
The first couple of months, I considered lowering my fees to get more work because I was not booked solid, but I resisted. It has now been eighteen months, and after a few tries at something steady, whether contract work or full-time employment, I landed a four-day-per-week contract that is worth it. I am earning a little less than before, but more than my average counting my additional work on that extra day and the occasional weekend work. But I love the people I work with, and the commute is great: after driving all over Wisconsin and Illinois, sometimes with eight-hour round-trip commutes, I now drive forty-five minutes door to door with minimum traffic and great views along the way through farming country.
By the time I accepted this assignment, I was averaging $10,000 per month, and that is counting the nine weeks I took off during those eighteen months for a six-week class and a trip to Greece, hitting over fourteen thousand the last few months. I am about to increase my fees, by the way, since I have been charging the same amounts for a year and a half.
Employment or freelance: Do not settle for less than your worth
Being a business owner and independent contractor is not easy, as it does not offer the comfort of a steady paycheck and work security. You need to proactively search for assignments and strategize as you build your business, learn to live within your means, and make projections on future income and expenses. But given the few full-time opportunities and the pay offered in the area where I live, freelancing is for now the best option for me. I would jump at the opportunity of a full-time job if that job offered a good salary and benefits, but the ones I have been offered so far go from $19.13 to $27.40 per hour, not even half of my regular hourly rate, $19 being pretty close to the pay around the corner at a fast-food restaurant I frequent.
Succeeding in business in the translation and interpretation professions requires way more than excellent language and delivery skills. You need to have good business sense and the ability to manage several different clients’ expectations, billing systems, and work styles, and you need to keep your networking working for you and others. Recommending colleagues for assignments has great payback: not only do you do a generous deed, but it also creates a network of loyal colleagues and friends that are always willing to lend a hand recommending your work and sharing contacts and assignments. I have seldom met colleagues that do not reciprocate, so it is a win-win situation.
If you are on the brink of going solo, do not be afraid to freelance and set fees that are commensurate with your experience and skill. There is a market for everyone to succeed. Surround yourself with good friends that are willing to share their knowledge, join an association – NAJIT first and foremost if you are in the judiciary field – and any local translator/interpreter association. Better yet, volunteer with at least one of your associations and spread the word about the benefits of belonging to them. Being part of a larger group of professionals looks good on your resume and brings way more benefits than the ones printed in flyers. You can make out of these connections whatever you want them to be, great colleagues and lifelong friends; the choice is yours.
I must admit that I am always on the hunt for a full-time job opportunity, so if you happen to know of a well-remunerated one in my neck of the woods, please do not hesitate to call me! I prefer it that way, given my age and my future plans. But that’s just me.
The title of this blog post is borrowed from the NAJIT 44th Annual Conference taking place June 2-4, in Las Vegas. If you join us, you will learn more about this important subject.
Hilda Zavala-Shymanik is a state certified/approved Spanish court interpreter and translator with more than fifteen years of experience in legal, medical, corporate, and non-profit settings in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She is a board member, treasurer, Conference Committee chair, member of the Training and Education Committee and blog team of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators as well as former president of the New York Circle of Translators. She is an active and voting member of NAJIT, ATA, and other professional groups. Hilda has two certificates in Legal Interpreting in Spanish and English, the latest one from NYU. Hilda is a former a Staff Interpreter at Essex County Superior Court in New Jersey, where she worked for six years. She now lives and works as a freelance interpreter in the Chicagoland area. Born in Chicago, Hilda lived for twenty years in Mexico and loves traveling. She continuously looks for opportunities to promote and advance the interpreting profession. Contact: email@example.com
Main photo (cropped) “Chicago sunrise 1” by author Daniel Schwen from Wikimedia Commons, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license. First body photo “argent gratuit” by Pierre Lecourt at flickr, under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Second body photo taken from “Leverage your partnerships to increase your experience” by Bertrand Duperrin at Bertrand Duperrin’s Notepad, under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR license.