Once thought of in the '70s as college students hired to baby-sit the office, ''temps'' (office temporaries) are taking on an increasing variety of roles and responsibilities.
For instance, a few temporary services are providing free word-processor training for clerical workers, since employers are ''crying out'' for workers with high-tech skills, says Peter Margarita, spokesman for the nationwide Olsten Temporary Services.
''We start with people who have worked at least 100 hours with us before, and who have certain skills already - they can type 55 w.p.m., for example,'' Mr. Margarita says. Then they put them in front of a Wang, Xerox, IBM, or Lanier CRT for ''four hours per day, for four days - after four hours, we've found, enough is enough - and train them.''
His company thinks of this investment as ''R&D money - if we don't train these people, we can't place them in these jobs'' where the pay, it has found, runs 10 to 30 percent higher than the average secretarial fee.
Manpower Inc., probably the largest temporary service organization in the United States, is using machines to train people on the use of machines, says its spokeswoman, Sharon Cantner. ''We've developed a series of disks that teach our people, using street language, how to operate the IBM, Wang, and Xerox word processors,'' she says.
Manpower has spent roughly $5 million developing this prototype software, which Ms. Cantner claims is adaptable to other forms of high-tech training. Some branches of the company have already developed software based on this model for training ''temps'' to work in particular offices, a fact it is using to ''attract more business from that firm,'' she says.
The need for these workers has boomed in the last decade. Industry figures from the National Association of Temporary Services (NATS) indicate that the business jumped from a payroll of $431 million in 1971 to nearly $5 billion today.
This is largely because of a wider use of temporary workers who sit in at nearly 9 out of every 10 offices, the Administrative Management Society says. ''Busi-nesses are using temporaries for more than just the traditional office/clerical workers,'' says Sam Sacco, spokesman for NATS.
''Now there are temporary service companies that send out nothing but accountants or other technical/professional types - 12 percent of the market. And there are temporary blue-collar workers - stock clerks, forklift operators - and a lot of temporary workers in the medical profession,'' he says.
Businesses have also learned to ''preplan for these workers,'' he says. ''If they know they have a peak cycle in sales, for example, instead of hiring permanent people and then letting them go at the end of the cycle, they call a temporary help service and let them deal with the payroll.''
They're not all who call, he admits. ''Sometimes an employer will have a job with high turnover - it's just too boring for anyone to do it for long - so he'll hire a temporary worker who knows he doesn't have to do it forever,'' he says.
Some employees take their new skills and trade them in for full-time jobs, a dilemma some temporary service operators ''have come to expect,'' as one puts it. For more and more such workers, temporary jobs are seen as a ''painless way to choose a new career, or start back on an old one,'' Mr. Sacco says.
Many temporary service operators, however, have noticed the emergence of a new type of employee - a ''career temporary'' - who enjoys the diversity of working in different office environments, likes picking his or her own hours , and can live on the salaries - income Sacco cheerfully describes as ''competitive with entry-level salaries in the full-time world.''
Sacco feels that such employees have certain advantages over the permanent staff: ''They're not involved in office politics, so they get right to work and get more work done,'' he says.