Temporary work booms, especially during recession

Christine Farrar is a ''temp,'' a temporary worker. She is one of 3.5 million Americans who have become members of the flexible work force, one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. Largely unrecognized by the public, the ranks of temporary workers have risen at an explosive 20 percent annual growth rate for the last seven years.

''I had a permanent job down in L.A.,'' explains Miss Farrar. ''When I moved up here about a year ago, I figured 'temping' would be the best way to find a company I would like working for permanently. But I've found I like this so much that I've gotten very fussy about settling down.''

The growth in temporary work is partially due to the recession. Businesses that have cut their work forces to the bone find they have more need for temporary workers. And people who cannot find permanent positions have turned to these jobs until they can find something permanent.

But there are others, like Miss Farrar, who are willing to take generally lower pay and benefits in return for the greater freedom and variety of temping. And businesses, particularly in the United States, are changing their personnel policies in ways that utilize temporary workers more liberally than in the past.

''Today, nine out of 10 companies, including 98 percent of the Fortune 500, use temporary workers,'' reports Walter W. Macauley, president and chief operating officer of Adia Temporary Services, the world's second-largest temporary-service company.

Adia recently conducted an international survey of the flexible work force which sketches a statistical portrait of temporary workers.

According to the study, the typical worker is a woman, but the number of men is growing. In the US, 1 in 8 temps are men, while in West Germany it is 1 in 3. Most are single, divorced, separated, or widowed. Most are young, under 30, although in the US, 12 percent are over 50. Most work as secretaries, although a surprising number work on computers and sophisticated telephone switchboards.

The survey also found that while one-third of the temporary workers in America are looking for permanent employment, almost half say their reasons for doing this type of work are because of other commitments which keep them from working full time, because they find temporary work more interesting, or because they are trying to gain experience and develop a career.

A number of these changes can be traced back to the uncertain economic times the world economy has gone through recently, Mr. Macauley argues: ''In the face of all these unpredictable fluctuations, we have seen personnel managers developing a philosophy of trying to keep a stable number of permanent employees and hiring temporaries for extra work or special projects.''

Partially as a result, the temporary-service industry has itself changed dramatically. The local mom-and-pop-type organizations have largely been replaced by national and international companies. They have developed sophisticated interview techniques and employ computers to match workers and jobs. While such operations often charge companies premium rates for temporary workers, the wages they pay remain pegged to entry-level salaries. However, some temporary-service companies have begun providing health and life insurance, paid holidays, and other bonuses to their workers. In addition, computer and word-processing operators can command relatively high salaries, even as temporaries.

''Five years ago, I would have predicted that office automation would be bad news for our business. But it has turned out just the opposite,'' Macauley says. Some temporary agencies even offer training in computer skills.

Companies have laid out a lot of money for this equipment, he explains, and they often have become dependent on it. So they won't let it sit idle even for a day or two. At the same time, other employees are less liable to know how to operate it properly. So companies are hiring more temporary workers with word-processing and computer skills, he says.

As a result, the temporary work force is currently booming. This year it looks like its growth may top 38 percent, Macauley says. In the last few months, serious labor shortages have developed in Boston, San Francisco, and Dallas, he says.

In addition, Macauley urges, ''For those who might be interested in temporary work, the next three weeks are the best time of year to get a job. College students have quit to return to school, and many housewives are not yet ready to return to work. So this is traditionally a lean time.''

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