Finding Work Through a Temporary Agency

By: Jules Smith

Downsizing. Rightsizing. Reengineering. Whatever you call it, companies everywhere are cutting costs by reducing their labor force. While the national unemployment rate has dropped slightly in the past year, according to the US Department of Labor there are still some 7.5 million persons out of work across the country. While this is obviously bad news for those being laid off, and even for those "fortunate" ones left behind who must cope with a heavier workload and reduced moral, it's an opportunity for many others.

In their zeal to save money, corporate bean counters often cut too far and have to supplement their remaining staff with short-term contract workers.

For seniors unwilling to retire, students with little experience, and homemakers trying to return to the work force this can be good news as it opens the door for temporary employment. For many, these "temp" positions have become a preferred means of earning a living. Others have found temping to be an ideal vehicle leading to permanent positions.

What are the advantages of temping? One individual who worked as a temp for a year before landing a full time position with a client explained "you can take or leave any job, the hours are flexible, the jobs are from everywhere in every field. There is just so much variety and freedom in temping." Some so enjoy working as temps they prefer it to regular permanent employment.

A temp assignment may last a single day or many months. As you move from client to client you have the opportunity to see a range of procedures and styles. This adds up to valuable experience you carry with you to future jobs. Paul Hagler of Action Staff in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has been in the employment industry for 13 years, explains, "The employee becomes a more rounded and more productive staff member in the future by seeing the processes of many different offices."

Of course, with the variety of work comes the reality that clients often hire temps to perform tasks that full time employees don't want to do.

As one temp put it, "You sometimes get the grotty jobs that no one else wants." It may be work that's tedious and repetitious, or work that requires virtually no ability. This can be particularly difficult to endure if you have greater skills and know you could be doing something else.

As a temp you enjoy a flexible schedule full time permanent employees often envy. If you're only available certain days of the week, most agencies can accommodate that. If you need an extended time off and you've proved to be a good worker, your agency will be glad to have you back when you return.

The drawback is that you also are at the whim of client's schedules.

While good employees are in high demand and can usually find sufficient work, there may be slow times when the phone doesn't ring. Dry seasons are particularly common during summer months when students out of school and looking for ways to pay for next year's tuition flood the job market.

You may be told an assignment will last several weeks, plan your schedule accordingly, and then the client cancels the contract.

Be forewarned that you may meet prejudice as a temp. Some of your coworkers or clients may clearly demonstrate their view of temps as second-rate employees who only work temp because they can't make it in a "real" job.

Some people wont bother to get to know you or even extend common courtesies since you're not going to be there for very long. They may regard you as a disposable commodity. One individual who worked as a temp for several years relates that at one location someone modified and posted a comic strip that spoke of temps as mindless losers who run around in circles waiting to be stepped on like ants. Not very complimentary.

Horror stories aside, if you do your part you are just as likely to meet many kind and considerate people and will probably make new friends.

Perhaps what most prospective temps want to know is how much they'll get paid. As with any job, it varies. Some workers find their hourly wage may be higher when they temp. One employee, Andy, reports that, "The pay was a little higher through the temp agency," but goes on to say that the benefits and added bonuses received with a permanent position offset the lower salary. These can include pension plans, health and insurance coverage, accumulated sick days, employee discounts, and so forth.

While more firms are starting to include these and other benefits, many still have no such arrangements or offer them to long-term employees only.

It's unlikely you'll get even a vague estimate of possible salary the first time you contact an agency. Pay scales depend on a number of factors; the type of work being performed, the client company, the ability of the agency to negotiate a reasonable wage, and perhaps most of all your own skill and experience.

Because of the wide range of employment firms in existence it's important to choose your agencies carefully. Find out first what type of work the agency offers. If you're looking for general clerical and the agency supplies mostly factory or warehouse positions you wont get the amount of work you need. If the agency specializes in legal secretarial and your background is medical, look elsewhere. If you have experience in a particular area such as legal, medical, or accounting, be sure to work with an agency that specializes in that field as you'll probably pull a higher salary.

As competition among agencies increases, the range of services and benefits they provide to both their clients and their employees improve. Some agencies are starting to provide daycare facilities. Look for agencies that provide training for their workers. This may be computer training in the form of one or two day courses or self-paced tutorials. It may include time management, personal counseling, and other life skills.

As you learn new skills, either with the agency or on your own, be sure to keep your coordinator at the agency informed so she can use you for more and better paying assignments.

Another factor to consider when choosing an agency is its reputation.

Do you know anyone who's found work there? Did the agency treat them well? Some agencies seem to regard their employees as numbers rather than people and show it by a lack of respect and concern. A good agency will always treat you with dignity, regardless of your experience or training.

They will try to work with your specific needs rather than just dumping you in favor of someone else.

How many agencies should you register with? Most temps agree that your chance of finding sufficient work varies directly with the number of agencies you register with. This seems only fair. Client companies often work with several agencies to fill specific requirements and to get the best price. Agencies draw from a large pool of employees to ensure they can match the right person with the necessary skills and schedule to the right job. By registering with several agencies you can almost ensure steady work. You can gradually remove from your list those agencies that don't call or that pay poorly.

Unfortunately, not all agencies see it this way. Some agencies may simply drop you if they find out you're working for the competition.

Don't sign any exclusive contracts unless you're sure you'll really be able to get the amount and type of work you need. In all cases, remember the old adage that honesty is the best policy. Don't try to hide that you're registered with other agencies, but don't feel obligated to name those agencies either.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of working as a temp is that you can "try out" a company before working for them full time. This doesn't mean you should just submit an application at a company where you're temping.

Client companies usually have an agreement with agencies stating that, should they wish to take a temp on full time, they'll do so through the agency.

Action Staff, mentioned earlier, actively promotes this process with a service they call Temporary to Permanent. It allows both the client and the employee to evaluate each other for 30 days without commitment.

The program is so successful that Paul Hagler reports that about 35% of his employees go permanent after completing the contract assignment.

One of the reasons Action Staff is so successful at satisfying client and employee needs is the extra effort they put into preparing employees for specific clients. Paul continues, "We can ... prepare temporary employees beforehand with any tests that may be given by the client company and/or videotapes directly relating to their business. In short, most of our temporary employees know much more about the client company than they would in any other pre-employment situation."

Even without such an arrangement you may still land a permanent position.

Kimberly Belfiore of Olsten Temporary Services admits, "We lose at lot of good temps that way." While it's often just a case of being in the right place at the right time, there are definite steps you can take to improve your prospects.

Don't leave it to chance that your agency will tell you of an opportunity to go full time. When you first register let them know your goals.

Anita, who found her present position while temping, comments, "I always let them know I'd like to be full time within six months and they usually come through." If a particular assignment seems to be going well and you like the client, call your coordinator and remind her of your desire for permanent work.

While on assignment keep alert to signs the client may soon be hiring.

Many companies post job openings internally before looking elsewhere.

Watch for notices on cafeteria bulletin boards and on the internal e-mail system. If you see a posting inform your coordinator at the agency.

Even if you're not interested in the position it may be right for someone else.

Simply being sent to a client that's intent on hiring doesn't guarantee you the job. Whether you're hired or not will still depend on you.

Certainly your skills and ability to perform the required job functions are important but there's something else even more essential.

Employers are often willing to train the right person. How do they define "right"? Answers Paul Hagler, "The ability requested more often than anything else by our client companies is dependability. Our studies show that an employee that shows up to work, on time, every day -- is more likely to be converted to a full time employee by the client company than one that has better skills." A mature, professional deportment will take you a long way.

Finding full time employment can be a job in itself; hunting through want ads, filling out applications, going on interviews, all without getting a paycheck. An easier alternative for many is temping. You can continue looking for a permanent job while receiving valuable training and experience, while at the same time generating a good income, often as much as or even more than you'd normally make. But once you experience the freedom and excitement of temping, you may decide a permanent job isn't necessary after all.

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