Temp Jobs: 3 Workers Say What It’s Really Like
Life + Money

Temp Jobs: 3 Workers Say What It’s Really Like

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You’ve heard the news about jobs: Things seem to be getting a little better. According to the most recent report, 163,000 new jobs were added in July, and the unemployment rate held fairly steady, ticking up one tenth of a percentage point to 8.3 percent. But exactly what kind of jobs are Americans getting?

Here’s a hint: Many of them are not permanent, and certainly don’t boast those pre-recession matched 401Ks (or other benefits like health insurance, paid sick days, holidays, or vacation, for that matter). More than 14,000 of the jobs added in July were in temporary help services, a sector that’s responsible for nearly half of total job growth over the past four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The result? More than 2.5 million Americans were employed as temporary workers during the first quarter of 2012.

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Staffing services has also become a lucrative business—and it’s only becoming more so. The American Staffing Association says it raked in $109.8 billion in 2011 (up from $ 97.1 billion the previous year), including $98.3 billion from temporary and contract staffing (up from $87.4 billion). Temporary agency placements have been responsible for 15 percent of all new jobs created in the U.S. this year, according to research firm IQntelligence—a significant amount, considering temp workers only account for 2 percent of the non-farm workforce.

The growing numbers are due in part to the changing nature of temps. According to BLS, the industry is fairly evenly divided among men and women, with men making up 53 percent of the pool, and those aged 25 through 54 accounting for 70 percent of temp workers.

While historically, temps have been associated with clerical work, today temp jobs range from office assistant to CFO to lawyers, and workers often stay longer than a one- or two-week stint. The average temp assignment in 2010 was 13.8 weeks, up from 9.6 weeks in 2000, and temp turnover is at a record low of just 277 percent, compared to 441 percent in 2000, according to the American Staffing Association.

Pay rates tend to be hourly and vary depending on the work. While rates for office and clerical temp work have taken a dip over the past year, professional and managerial temps are earning more. IQNtelligence reports that in March of this year, the average rates for jobs like sales representatives and compliance analysts had increased 11.4 percent since January 2008. But even with these rising rates, businesses are still saving a bundle since they aren’t providing benefits.

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Though temping is often touted by recruiters as the path to a staff ID card, in post-recession America, it often is not. Jeff Joerres, CEO of Manpower, one of the nation’slargest staffing firms, recently told USA Today that about 30 percent of the temps his staffing firm has placed this year have been converted to permanent employees – down  from 45 percent last year. And for those placed through most agencies, the employer has to purchase their contract from the recruiter – meaning  they’ll pay a conversion fee to turn the temp into a full-time worker. Rates can vary, but some agencies charge 30 percent of a potential employee’s full-time annual salary – not  exactly an appealing prospect for employers.

So just what is it like to be a temp in today’s economy? Is there any hope of landing a full-time gig? Are there any positives to temping – or is the whole thing just a means for working hard without benefits or job security? To find out, we spoke with three workers across the country who are playing the temp game.

1. Nick Dyer, 25, Web Developer and Newbie Temper
When Nick Dyer from San Diego was laid off from his full-time web developing gig at an e-commerce site earlier this year, he immediately signed with three staffing agencies, as well as took a free HTML5 course through staffing agency Aquent/Vitamin T to brush up on his web chops. “I was applying to job postings every day,” Dyer says. “I saw this opportunity with Aquent, and I thought it would be a good experience.”

With no luck with the other staffing agencies, Aquent finally placed him at his first position, a temporary stint as a junior web developer at an insurance company, under the condition he’d be considered for a full-time job at the end of three months. After two weeks there, he believes he has a good chance of being hired permanently. “I want to work for a company I can see myself being at for years to come, and this seems like it’s the one,” Dyer says.

2. Robert Melton, 34, Long-Term Contract Lawyer and Budding Entrepreneur
Melton graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2006 and had trouble landing a full-time job. He spent 13 months looking and studying for the bar before signing up with a staffing agency after seeing an ad on Craigslist. Ever since, he’s worked for several law firms through six staffing agencies in the Philadelphia area, on projects that have generally lasted from six months to a year. Melton says that there are no guarantees on time frames, though he does know attorneys who have worked on a single assignment for five years. “One day, my supervisor will call us into a meeting, thank us for our hard work, and we'll all be unemployed,” he says. “Sometimes there are warning signs. Often, there are not.”

Melton also maintains that the promise of a full-time job from a temp gig is false, at least for all but a few lucky lawyers. It was made clear to him on his first project that there was no potential for full-time work, and one recruiter even said he’d been rejected for a full-time position simply because the hiring partner didn’t like working with temps. “Many recruiters will tell potential contract attorneys stories about people who have been promoted to full-time work as they sell the benefits of temping,” Melton says. “I wish they would stop.”

After five years of working contract, Melton has abandoned the dream of working for someone else, opting to start his own, non-law-related company – a website http://www.funtober.com/ that provides info on October events and sells Halloween costumes. He’s continuing to temp as he gets it off the ground: “I couldn't have started it without my work temping,” Melton says. “Other startups are always worried about how to pay the bills. I don’t have to worry about that while I’m temping.”

3. Angela Sheridan, Temp Veteran Looking for That Full-Time Break
Sheridan, of Sierra Madre, California, specializes in office and clerical work and has been temping of and on for almost three years, after being laid off from a full-time position as a nutritional assistant at a hospital. Through two different staffing agencies, she’s managed to find fairly steady work, most recently for a payroll company in the entertainment industry, where she’s worked for nine months. “I really like this one,” she says of the gig, where she processes checks for movie stars, TV shows, and the like.

The only problem? A lack of health insurance, paid vacation, or any kind of security. She misses the paid vacations and other perks. But most of all, she wants a commitment from an employer. “What I don’t like about [temping] is the point when it’s time to go,” she says. “I start liking a place, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s it.’” Sheridan hopes that her current gig will turn into a full-time position, but is hindered by the fact that the company would have to buy her contract from the staffing agency for her to become an employee. “I definitely prefer to work full-time,” she says. “It’s just so hard to find right now.”