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Employment Options

So You Think You Can Temp?

Temporary jobs are on the rise. Here’s what you need to know.

— Photo by Thomas Jackson/Getty Images

En español | Some of Elaine Pinches’ temping jobs have lasted for months. Others ended after a few days.

And then there was the assignment for three weeks of data processing work for her and two other temps. “We finished in three days,” recalls Pinches, 57, of Boston. “They were thrilled—and then we were out of a job.”

So it goes in the world of temporary jobs, which now include everything from book editors to senior managers to software engineers. With the recession causing many employers to hold off on hiring for permanent jobs, temporary employment is a rare growing sector.

While most job seekers want a permanent gig, temp jobs can offer real advantages—quick cash, new skills and a foot in the door at a target company.

The temp sector added 26,000 new jobs in April alone and a total of 330,000 since September 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s a significant chunk of the economy as a whole—temp agencies and contract staffing firms employ an average 2 million people a day.

Many economists see the sector’s growth as a leading indicator of recovery—employers who are taking on more temps will switch to permanent hiring when the future looks better.

A good thing

Cynthia Metzler, former president of Experience Works in Arlington, Va., which places seniors in training and jobs, says temp employment can be a good thing for many older people. “It gives them more experience,” she says. “They earn an income, learn and refresh their skills.”

Some staffing firms—you work for them, not their clients—now offer benefits such as health insurance and paid training.

Joan Freeman, director of the Gray Matters Coalition in McLean, Va., a group that supports the rights of older workers, adds another perk: Experienced individuals can land a temp job without facing age discrimination that can occur in the full-time market.

As Freeman sees it, many employers use temping to “try it before you buy it”—a way to see if the person could be a good fit for a permanent job. “It’s an audition,” she says.

A survey by the American Staffing Association found that more than three-quarters of the temps questioned said their assignment was a good way to obtain a permanent job. More than two-thirds said temping strengthened their resumé or added work skills.

Permanent temps?

But some workers wind up getting stuck in long-term temp assignments, some even for years, and resent that they get fewer perks, fewer career opportunities and less money than full-timers in the next cubicle. They miss the camaraderie and stability—as well as health insurance and retirement plans—that come from permanent employment. Or they tire of being handed the less interesting work that is sometimes farmed out to temps, whether they’re attorneys or administrative assistants.

Because of the limited investment by the hiring company, low-income, unskilled temp jobs may have another drawback: They may reduce a worker’s income and career prospects over time, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist found in a study of 37,000 workers from 1999 to 2003.

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And for some people, changing workplaces every week or every month can be stressful. Learning new names, new computer systems and the expectations of a new boss is simply part of the job.

“It can be kind of unsettling to bounce around a lot,” says Pinches, who doesn’t relish new commutes through Boston. And she knows the companies she’s going to are often understaffed. “The places are under the gun for one reason or another. Don’t expect kid glove treatment,” she says.

Nevertheless, Pinches, who started temping out of necessity, stuck with it. After she was laid off from Bank of Boston in 1995, she took on short-term assignments the next year, mostly at health care and financial companies. Many weeks she’s on the job 40 hours. “It’s full-time work and I am committed to it,” she says.

Finding a temp job

If you’re considering a temp job, here are some tips from the experts:

Research online to find staffing firms that suit you and your career interests. “There’s a temporary firm out there for almost every profession. They get very specific,” says Robin Mee, who runs executive search firm Mee Derby & Co. in Cabin John, Md., in the Washington area. Many will list job openings on their websites. And some of the big temporary services firms have separate divisions for different kinds of work: factory jobs in one area, tech in another and health care in yet another.

Set up a meeting at the temp firm—national firms will have local offices. Treat the meeting like any job interview. Bring copies of your resumé and references. Unless you’re interviewing for a senior executive job, trim down your resumé and make sure you highlight recent computer skills.

“Go in in a cheerful mood. Be really nice to the receptionist or whoever sits at front desk—that person may be involved in placement,” says Freeman.

Win over the recruiter. Remind yourself that this one interview could open doors to five or even 10 different work assignments.

Expect to be tested on your skills, especially for office, administrative or technical jobs.

Stay connected with your agency. “Those jobs on a temp basis come in fast and furious. Sometimes it’s the person sitting in the lobby who’s hired—there’s a real sense of urgency in filling a temporary position,” says Mee.

Sign up with three or four temporary agencies, to reduce potential down time of no job.

Be available around the clock. Temp firms succeed when they fill the needs of their clients quickly. Many staffing firms keep a roster of people who are available for work immediately—a call could come at 8 a.m. for a job at 9 a.m. “So get on the availability list” and stay on it by checking in with your recruiter once or twice a week, says Freeman of Gray Matters.

If you’re offered a temporary job, ask about the employer’s expectations and workplace attire and approach. It won’t help to wear a tie or suit on your first day if everyone else is in hand-painted T-shirts and jeans.

At the workplace where you’re sent, don’t advertise that you’re gunning to be hired permanently, suggests Bruce Ferguson, president of I-Hire, a California recruitment and staffing firm that specializes in “harder to fill” professional jobs. Rather, work hard and “show you’re a value to the company, and then they don’t want to lose you.”

Keep your eye on the permanent job notices that come across the office computer system—you’re now on the inside, and inside information is priceless.

Vickie Elmer writes about business and careers and blogs at

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