Coming Soon: Good Times for Temp Workers


During a recession is the worst time to be a temp — whatever work companies have will go to employees, as a way to avoid having to lay them off. Another bad time is the middle of a recovery — things are going so well that managers figure it's safe to hire new permanent employees. Still, there are two good times to look for temp work, and we're coming up on one of them.

One good time to look for temp work is the second half of a period of growth. By that point unemployment is usually low enough that companies are having trouble recruiting new full-time employees, so they turn to temps.

The other good time, though — and this is the one we're approaching — is early in a recovery. When no one is sure that growth will last, companies will resist hiring new permanent employees. But if business is expanding, there's work that needs to get done.

At the very beginning of a recovery, companies will try to squeeze some extra work out of the employees they've got — but that only goes so far. Pretty soon they find that they're losing business because their employees can't get everything done. They need more hands, but are afraid to hire, and that's the point they turn to temps.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data on "Temporary help services" shows a small uptick started in August (see graph above). It doesn't amount to much yet, but if the economy continues to grow, we may see considerable growth in temp work — growth that will beat the growth in overall employment until employer confidence returns strongly enough that they're ready to start hiring new permanent workers.

Much the same applies to freelance work as well. Employers who need to get work done — but don't want to hire new employees — will turn to freelancers much like they turn to temps.

Let me add one caveat here: I'm not predicting continued growth. It's hard enough to predict the present, let alone the future. The recent past, though, we can be pretty confident of — and the latest statistics show economic growth. The economy could turn back down — in fact it surely will, sooner or later. But, in the meantime, we're coming up on the best environment temps and freelancers have seen in years.

Updated 21 December 2009: The latest BLS numbers are just out and show the surge in temp worker employment is continuing.  Here's a graph with the latest data:

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Guest's picture

For a company, the beauty of a temp worker is: no commitment, hard-worker (as every day could be his or her last) and, best of all, no benefits. It certainly is a good time to be a temp.

Guest's picture

My wife used to be a temp worker; According to her, the best time for a temp worker is the day they don't have to be a temp worker anymore.

Low wages, but the temp agency gets paid well for you. No benefits, no security, no respect. No vacation pay, no paid stat holidays. Even if we wanted to take a vacation, we couldn't because we might miss an opportunity for her to work. No mat leave!! That's a biggie for us where full time workers are entitled to a full year of mat leave.

Also, the temp agency she was stuck with were poorly managed and regularly rude to her when she had to call in for stuff. She was so happy the day she called them and told them to take her off their list. And they still tried to go after her new employer for a "referral fee". They had nothing to do with her getting that job; their rationale - they provided (some of) the job experience that she cited in her resume.

Temp work should not be thought of as just temporary workers for some company; it should be thought of as a temporary situation for the temp worker. Do what you have to to survive, but don't tolerate this for too long.

Guest's picture

I've been temping for the last several months, as my field is not doing much hiring (not-for-profit arts), and I am getting ready to have a baby, so taking on a permanent job outside my field did not appeal to me.

If you are a good worker with half a brain, companies will keep on asking for you. I started with a one week job at a company replacing the receptionist while she was on vacation, and they have asked for me again at the agency several times - the most recent being 4 weeks of basically full-time work in the HR department.

My agency treats me very well, and the wages I make are just padding for our monthly budget as I have been in school, so it's been a good fit for me. Not for everyone, though.

Guest's picture

"Temp work should not be thought of as just temporary workers for some company; it should be thought of as a temporary situation for the temp worker. Do what you have to to survive, but don't tolerate this for too long."

Kevin, it sounds like your wife had a bad experience, but not all temp agencies are like that. I work in the payroll department of a large regional temp agency, and have regular contact with both the client companies and the temporary employees themselves.

We have temps who have been working the same (or multiple) positions for years, one since 2001(!) with many of the long-term ones making $15-20 or more per hour. Our agency also offers vacation and holiday pay for regular temp workers. Furthermore, we have a large amount of temp-to-hire workers who get hired on full-time (with benefits) at the client companies after a little while.

I was a temp through my agency before being hired on internally, and it was very rewarding and not at all like what your wife went through. Temp agencies can be a wonderful tool if you're struggling with finding a job. Applying at multiple agencies could help others avoid situations like your wife's, because many are well-run, respectable organizations that do treat their workers well.

Guest's picture

Its so funny that this article came now,as I have been doing seasonal/off and on positions since I graduated college in december, and for the last two months Temp'in has been booming. I have recently got job after job for around 10-13 dollars, which is not bad at all considering that I could be making zip. This has been my first time working for a temp agency and it is a great way to tide you over till something permanent. Also, its a great way to develope your skills, network, and my last employer was kind enough to let us use him as a reference, and all that I have worked for have been very gracious. Only downside to temping in this job market though is that temp-to-hire seems to be very rare. Alot of jobs out there right now for temps are for short-term projects and will hire a small group of people to knock out a task quickly and economically.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Temping is hit or miss for most.  I have gotten some of my valuable job experiences by doing temp jobs, and the key is to really sell your abilities to the right agency so that they can place you in jobs that maximize your job skills.  Yes, I had no problem stuffing envelopes for 12 days, but it wasn't the best use of my time.  By showing up on time, being extra helpful, and pitching myself in other areas, I was able to get into increasingly high-paying and fun jobs.  Temping was eventually what matched me with my earliest "career" job.

My husband, on the other hand, has experienced the "hard labor" side of temping.  A completely different experience.  He had been treated horribly from day one, and there was no accountability.  The guys who slacked got the same as the guys who showed up early and followed the rules.

Everyone's experience is different, but I can tell you one thing:  When you have kids to feed and rent to pay,  a temp job (even the most crappy ones) can be a blessing!

Linsey Knerl