Career Center Blog

January 14, 2010

In defense of temp work


A couple of articles on the recent rise of temporary hires caught my eye. In late December, the New York Times reported that companies have steadily been hiring more temporary workers (including independent contractors, freelancers, and permatemps) since the start of fall.

As the New York Times put it, "...corporate managers have been reluctant to shift to hiring permanent workers, relying instead on temps and other casual labor easily shed if demand slows again."

In fact, the paper reported that in November, the country's workforce added 52,000 temp workers, more new workers than in any other category. "Not even health care and government, stalwarts through the long recession, did better," the New York Times noted.

Although this is good news for workers looking for some interim income -- or those hoping to break into a more permanent gig by "auditioning" as a temp -- the overall message of the Times article is, predictably, that temping is a subpar way to make a living (less job security, little to no benefits, and so on).

This month, BusinessWeek offered a much broader, much more grim take on the topic, painting temps as the nation's disposable workers, big business' golden ticket to smaller budgets, and yet another symptom of the demise of employee compensation and bargaining power. As Seattle's sizable temp population knows, and as BusinessWeek points out, this trend is nothing new.

Most of the nation's 10.3 million independent contractors (including on-call temps, freelancers, and permatemps) would probably prefer the perks, permanence, and prestige that come with employee status. But I'm going to say something very unpopular here: Some seasoned temps, yours truly included, are fans of the fleeting-work model.

For someone who prefers to work gig to gig, a quick trip to temp land can expose you to new skills, technologies, professional contacts, and companies. As a bonus, you get to sit out most of those onerous staff meetings and some of the political turbulence that plague your employee counterparts. For the lone wolf who's accustomed to working at home, a multi-week or multi-month temping stint can be a welcome break from working solo in your skivvies, hustling for new projects each month, and paying self-employment taxes.

To me, temp, contract, and permatemp work have always been a happy medium between running my own show as a sole proprietor and committing myself to one employer indefinitely (or at least until one of us flinches and says sayonara). How about you? Where do you stand on the temp preference spectrum? Has temping or contracting served you well and allowed you to achieve some of your larger personal, professional, and financial goals? Or is it the bane of your existence?

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide." E-mail Michelle at

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As usual, interesting piece on temp work.

My challenge with students is temp work is often full-time, not part-time. I wish I could use temporary work more as a solution for students, but so far haven't found many avenues.

For those who don't need the money, get bored with a job easily, and can make do with limited or no benefits, temping can be great.

But for the most part, people temp because they have to, not because they want to. This article is correct in stating that it's not a path to stability or security. With temping comes the feeling that any day you go into work could be your last. Plus there's an added layer of personal attachment and professional politics as the recruiter and agency which placed you must be beholden to their paid client's interests & not yours in the event you feel you are treated unfairly or one of the more permanent employees is disrespectful to you. Rather than deal with any situation, clients take the easy way out & dispose of the temp instead of wanting to deal with the issue.

Michelle, hurray for pointing to the upside of a free-range lifestyle! As "Newsweek" recently stressed, we're moving towards a gig economy: An earlier article there predicted that 40% of US workers may operate like us by 2015.

The freedom can be fabulous for creatives, nomads, parents and caretakers. But as JR points out, it's not for everyone – AND it damages businesses too, as talent revolves out the door and institutional memory erodes.

Just one quibble: do you really think most independent contractors "would probably prefer the perks, permanence, and prestige that come with employee status"? I certainly wouldn't, nor would most freelancers I know (mainly writers, photographers and programmers). But then I spent eight years working in Europe, where going freelance often signals that a professional has "arrived" enough to call their own shots.

Of course, such independence is MUCH easier to enjoy with universal health care

Hi Amanda, thanks for the question! You're right; my comment about independent contractors preferring the perks of permanent work was confusing. When I wrote that, I had in mind the legions of temps, permatemps, contract workers, and sometimes freelancers who take those jobs because they're the next best thing to a staff job, not those who work independently by choice (see NYT article above or our region's rich contractor/permatemp history). I of course don't believe that most freelancers wish they were on staff, though I've encountered many who do. -M.

There's a world of difference between choosing to be a temp and being stuck with being a permatemp to have a paycheck at all.

I used to enjoy temp work, when it was a choice. It became aggravating once employers started using it as a long term staffing mechanism, allowing them to bypass paying benefits and offering any modicum of job security. It is not a choice for many people. I understanding lean staffing and employer flexibility - but far too many employers resort to temp workers as a way of doing business year-round.

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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