'Temping' Is Now a Career - With an Upside for Workers

For 12 years, David Rosenthal worked as a software programmer for Raytheon. But when the Massachusetts-based defense contractor put a freeze on raises that lasted three years, he decided it was time to move on.

Rather than gravitate to another permanent job, Mr. Rosenthal joined the ranks of the temporary work force, where's he's been - by choice - for nearly two years. It's paid off. The Waltham, Mass., programmer has doubled his salary, broadened his skill base, and hand-picked many of his assignments.

Rosenthal represents a new breed of temp worker - those who choose temping as a preferred means of employment. Most are high-tech or engineering professionals, but increasingly they are joined by accountants, attorneys, and other high-skilled workers.

Though their ranks are small, workers who join the itinerant work force for the long haul cite a number of benefits: flexibility to balance demands of work and family, an opportunity to improve job skills, or simply variety. Their growing numbers also underscore that, in today's job marketplace, workers are recognizing that their own skills - and not a company - give them real employment security.

Long-term temping is made more feasible by a growing number of temp agencies that focus on placing high-end professionals. In many cases, workers who sign with these agencies are eligible for benefits almost as generous as those offered to permanent employees at other companies.

"I really don't know what a temp is any more," says Ray Marcy, president of Interim Services Inc., a temp agency based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The temporary staffing industry - which kicks off National Temporary Help Week today - has become a $40 billion-a-year business. More than 90 percent of companies use temporary workers each year. There are nearly 2.2 million temporary workers in the United States, about 2 percent of all jobs. That's up from 708,000 in 1985, according to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services (NATSS), a trade group in Alexandria, Va.

While the image of temps has long been that of secretaries, college students looking to land their first job, or downsized employees treading water until they find a permanent position, for many temping is no longer merely a stop-gap measure.

Several factors are propelling the trend:

*Temp agencies are focusing on placing higher-skilled workers. While office-support and clerical positions still account for 40 percent of all temp jobs, technical and professional fields are the fastest-growing segment, making up 15 percent of the temporary work force, according to NATSS.

Manpower Inc., a Milwaukee-based temp agency that calls itself the largest private employer in the world, has seen a 40 percent increase in this segment of its business, says spokeswoman Sharon Canter.

*Flexibility is a big factor. In today's two-income families, more workers see temping as a solution. While many temporary workers end up working close to 52 weeks a year, "psychologically they can say, 'I don't have to work next week if I don't want to,'" says Robert Whalen, president of both Office Specialists in Peabody, Mass., and of NATSS.

*More companies offer competitive benefits packages. At TAD Resources International Inc., a temporary staffing firm based in Cambridge, Mass., temps who work at least 60 days with the agency are eligible for six paid holidays, medical and life insurance, and a 401(k) retirement plan.

Studies also indicate that white-collar temporary workers tend to earn more than their counterparts with permanent status, in part, because temps are rewarded for the risk they take of having gaps in employment.

*With job-for-life opportunities dwindling in today's economy, professionals who become temp workers say they actually feel more in control of their own employment because they don't have to answer to just one company. "No matter what skills you have, if you are working for a single company you are subject to the whims of the organization," says NATSS spokesman Bruce Steinberg.

"Many people working in high-tech industries, such as aerospace [where workers have often been downsized], refuse to take a permanent job," adds Jay Davis, president of TAD.

*One of the biggest incentives, particularly for those like Rosenthal in the high-tech industry, is that they can keep their skills current.

"Working for one company, you can get bottle-necked with one set of skills," Rosenthal says. Working as a temp, he adds, he has been able to learn many new technology systems.

"If I had stayed at Raytheon, there wouldn't have been any new technology platforms for two years," he contends.

Yet some aspects of his job are not as pleasing - like the stigma of being a temp. "Some companies go to great lengths to treat everyone the same," he says. And some don't. He tells of being stuffed in a cubicle with two or three other temps, while staff employees had their own individual space. Others times he hasn't had his own phone.

In addition, he says, a temp has little leeway to express his or her opinions: "If you don't like how things are being handled, you can't complain too loud."

But there's a bigger challenge - staying employed 52 weeks a year.

For the first time in his temping career, Rosenthal is currently between jobs.

He originally signed a one-year contract with a computer manufacturer in the Boston area. Because funding ran out for his project, the company terminated his contract four months early.

To land another job, he's currently working with about four agencies. He says he's confident that he'll have something else in a few days.

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