Life and Work in a Temporary Job

by Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

You've decided to give temping a try and have found an agency that appears to serve your needs. You've applied for a spot on their fleet of workers and they've agreed to take you on. So now what?

While the agency searches to find you that plum assignment, they might be able to offer you a "temporary" temporary position. Most temp agencies have a surplus of drudgework so if they ask you to do some mindless number-crunching and you are looking for a more challenging assignment, feel free to say no. However, holding out indefinitely for the perfect placement isn't a good idea either, advises Jacqueline Johnson, who has more than ten years of temping experience. "Don't refuse too many assignments, because they'll think you're uncooperative and will stop calling," she said.

Once an assignment that interests you becomes available, consider your potential role within that company. More often than not, employers are hiring for attitude, not just aptitude these days. To get the best placements and wages, temps need to treat a temporary job as seriously as a permanent one. As Nikki Kelly, Vice President of Staffing Services for Davidson Staffing advises, "if you perform your duties well and establish a solid professional relationship with others, you may be first in line to leap to a more permanent position." Her solution is to communicate your objectives to your temp agency. Show the agency, as well as your employer, that you are a standout temp. You should demonstrate integrity, be punctual, be a team player, think outside the box, have a 'can do' attitude, show stability and consistent work performance, and treat each temporary assignment like a permanent position. Use this opportunity as a chance to network and gain experience.

Go With the Flow as Best You Can
Like any new job, the first day as a temp on a new assignment is usually the hardest. Some temps find it helpful to make a cheat sheet detailing the employer's name, starting time, where to report, pay rate, and the agency contact.

Once you report for duty, you're likely to be given a specific task to accomplish, concrete instructions and a communal workspace. Don't be surprised if you are ignored by most of your coworkers. While permanent employees' animosity toward temporary workers is largely a media invention, an "us-and-them" mentality can, and has been known to exist in the workplace, according to veteran temp Scott Verrastro. It may seem immature, but temps are often viewed as the outsider who's not sticking around long enough to become part of the team.

Don't fret if you don't like a placement or feel the pay is too low. Bargain for a better rate or a more enjoyable placement. "Just as you need the job, they need you as well, so you have some leeway," said temp Jacqueline Johnson. If the assignment turns out to be something different than you expected, let your agency know. However, do not walk out on a bad assignment. Try to endure for a few days until they can find you a replacement. Not only will your diligence prove to the agency that you're a dependable worker, it may prompt them to find you a more fitting position.

Benefits Still a Drawback?
Scott Verrastro has been a temp for 14 months. He said he values the flexibility of his work schedule, but also recognizes the down side of his employment choice: He has been without health insurance for more than a year. "The cons are having no benefits or sick days. Where I live, it's imperative to have a job with benefits, health insurance, and job security, as most can't afford to be without them for long," he said.

Although there are many agencies that do not offer benefits such as health and dental insurance, sick and vacation days, and tuition reimbursement, some agencies do offer them. However, these agencies usually require workers to put in a certain number of days to qualify. So if the benefits and money are less than satisfactory, temp employees can take comfort in the one fact that it is all only temporary.

As the temporary workforce has shifted from only entry-level positions to more highly skilled positions, there has been a tremendous increase in competition among the top temporary firms. To accommodate the shifts toward "permanent" temping, agencies these days go as far as offering juicy benefits packages and even 401(k) plan. Companies are also offering training programs to attract these quality candidates.

In the future, for more and more job seekers, benefits may become a necessity. Gregory Booth, CEO and cofounder of Net-Temps, an online recruiting source, thinks the temp industry will offer more benefits over time. "You're going to see benefits become more portable from one staffing company to the next," he said. "Staffing companies are increasing their benefits at the same time that a lot of Fortune 500s are decreasing them."

While the future of temp benefits does look brighter, it's currently necessary for contingency workers to do some research into alternative sources. Some states subsidize health care to low-income workers, and certain people can qualify for a discounted plan through an HMO. If your spouse's or parent's employer offers health care, you may have the option to be added to that program for a fee.

Cynthia Tobia, Vice President for Compensation and Benefits at Addeco, recommends asking potential employers about the eligibility requirement for benefits, which differ from company to company. Most companies require you to work a certain number of days or hours before you are eligible for their employee benefits. A simple yes or no answer will make a significant difference for many.

Most Are Not in It For the Long Haul
On average, not many people temp for long. According to the American Staffing Association, the average tenure of temporary and contract employees ranges from 3 to 5 months. Those workers who do stick around more long-term are generally better educated, higher paid and have more benefits. Other long-term temps have other income or benefits sources (from a spouse or parent, for example), alleviating some of the financial stress that accompanies temping without benefits. However, many people use temporary work as a bridge to permanent employment.

"I'm giving serious thought to going back and finishing my degree," said Johnson, an aspiring nurse. In the meantime, she qualifies for state-sponsored health care, which reduces her financial burden. And for now, she's not quite ready to leave her flexible work world. "I'll continue to temp in the meantime," she said.

Verrastro is looking to move out of the temporary work industry, if only to receive health insurance and other benefits. "I could see myself temping in the long term only if it's in a more affordable city," said Verrastro, who lives in Boston, Mass., a city well known for its high cost of living.

Your job satisfaction is likely to vary no matter what employment sector you're in. One person's dream job is another's worst nightmare. Due to the nature of temping, one day you're working, the next day you're watching soap operas if there are no assignments that appeal to you - and the anxieties around making ends meet may be exacerbated.

Many job seekers see the combination of schedule flexibility and a constantly changing work atmosphere as a professional alternative to the tedium and concreteness of working full-time. While flexibility, work diversity, and free training are generally considered some of the pros of temping, the vulnerable nature of employment is difficult for many people to adapt to.