White-collar New Zealanders are preparing to sacrifice the security of nine-to-five salaries to head out on their own as private contractors - in unprecedented numbers.

Nearly two out of three professionals (63 per cent) say they would be happy to take on a contract role, a new survey shows. That is higher than anywhere in the world except in Britain.

Another 28 per cent would take on a contract role if there were no permanent options, according to the online survey conducted internationally by recruitment firm Robert Walters. Only eight per cent would rule out contract work entirely.

The figures may reflect the expectation that the public sector, in particular, will reduce staff numbers and rely more heavily on contractors and consultants. The Labour Opposition this week criticised the Government's reliance on "$1500-a-day consultants" while laying off 1000 public servants.

The private sector, too, is cutting back on permanent staff. Such changes appear to be encouraging salaried professionals to steel themselves for a new way of working.

While most contracts will not pay $1500 for a day's work like those working for the Beehive, the remuneration and the flexibility can be attractive if you don't mind the risk.

The survey shows few workers in mainland Europe or Asia are willing to risk striking out on their own without the safety net of a weekly or fortnightly pay cheque.

Richard Manthel, managing director of Robert Walters New Zealand, said contracting did not offer the stability of a permanent role, but did offer higher pay rates. "It is well known that employers can turn to temporary recruitment in tougher economic conditions as a means of controlling headcount costs and maintaining productivity," he said.

But Grant Robertson, Labour's state services spokesman, said: "This is the same pattern that we saw in the 1990s, with large numbers of public sector lay-offs, then the money being paid to contractors and consultants. There is a grave danger of loss of institutional memory."

Phillip Ratcliffe contracted in South Africa and Britain before returning to New Zealand to farm near Miranda, on the Firth of Thames.

After three years' farming, he felt a yearning for the world of commerce again so in January he returned to the big smoke in a systems contracting role.

"I'm not nervous about finding my next contract, but the lack of security is the downside of contracting. If you want to borrow money, banks don't look at you so favourably," he said.

"But contracting is exciting. And I get back to the farm on the weekends. I drive my digger, I play around the farm, I go fishing. It's all about balance."

Kathryn Dyke has shifted back and forth between accounting contract roles and staff positions since 1989, when her Tauranga employer went into receivership.

"I've gained a huge number of skills," said the 42-year-old, who now lives in Auckland's One Tree Hill.

"Because I'm not part of the company's head-count, I don't necessarily get invited to the staff Christmas parties. But that's all right - you don't go in with any expectations."

DIFFERENT STROKES FOR PROFESSIONAL FOLKS

Robyn Hallett didn't exactly choose to go contracting. She was thrown headlong into it when she was made redundant in January from her role in sales and business development at Actionmail on Auckland's North Shore.

Now, the 49-year-old from Birkenhead is loving the chance to broaden her skills and "experiment" - sometimes just for a few weeks at a time - with different employers.

She is working at present with a telemarketing team at a global corporate near Auckland's waterfront.

She catches the Birkenhead ferry to work each morning. "I've met a few women on the ferry who also contract, because they can take a couple of weeks off between jobs, or they can choose to work two or three days a week. It's good for families."

Hallett is single and doesn't have children to worry about - but she does have a mortgage, "which is risk enough. The money is very good, though you don't have your holidays and sick pay taken care of, so you have to be careful," she says.

"I'm doing it because I'm searching for the right role, and I don't want to be forced by the economic downturn into a long-term position that I don't want."

"I've travelled all over the world, I've lived in America.

"Because Kiwis have travelled, because we've done different jobs, maybe we're open to looking at all our options ... I suppose you'd have to say we're risk-takers."