Get Career-Changing Experience By Temping

By payroll size, the biggest U.S. employer isn’t General Motors Corp. or Wal-Mart Stores. It’s Manpower Inc., a temporary services firm in Milwaukee, which employs 760,000.

Manpower sends all types of employees into companies to fill temporary roles ranging from traditional filing and typing to complex computer, marketing or finance positions. Because these jobs aren’t permanent, they’re ideal options for professionals trying to change careers or who need income to support other goals.

For instance, if you’re interested in a creative career that may take years to develop, such as writing or acting, or want to travel or start a business, temping can pay the bills. You also may gain the inside track on unadvertised openings.

After earning a journalism degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Josie Stroud registered with Manpower. To her surprise, her first assignment – a technical writing assistant’s job for a company that writes software instruction manuals – was related to her field. After temping for a few months, she was offered a full-time position, which she quickly accepted.

“This is a small community and not a good place for a journalism major to find work,” says Stroud. “I’m a walking statistic-breaker to have found a writing job.”

Richard Rogers, the Brooklyn, N.Y., author of “Temping: The Insider’s Guide” (1996, Arco), became an office temp after graduating from New York University. Now temping as a supervisor, he says opportunities are plentiful in traditional office, retail and factory settings and for specialized professionals, such as doctors, attorneys, paralegals, accountants, engineers, computer experts and even top managers.

“This is no longer an industry of replacement workers,” he says. “It’s just-in-time labor. Most corporations have been downsizing and find the temporary work force good for filling in where they need to re-upsize.”

But temping isn’t for every new grad. The best candidate is “very flexible, willing to look at a situation as something to learn from, and a little adventurous, tough and assertive because you’re in charge of finding your own jobs,” says Deborahann Smith, author of “Temp: How to Survive & Thrive in the World of Temporary Employment” (Shambhala, 1994).

The rewards, however, can be substantial. “Going right from college into a full-time work situation can be tough,” says Smith. “Temping gives you some space.”

She and other temps cite the following advantages to the lifestyle:

1. No-risk tryouts.

A big advantage is the ability to sample industries and companies before seeking a full-time role, says Rogers. “A [want] ad looks great, but until you’re in the company and see the culture, you don’t know what goes on inside,” he says.

One program of Kelly Services Inc. of Troy, Mich., assigns employees to companies for 90-day trials. This approach “is popular among new college graduates because they get to try out companies and jobs,” says Carl Camden, the firm’s marketing and public affairs vice president. “Some people do it for a year or two.”

Dianna Garcia, a University of Southern Colorado graduate, is temping in a long-term customer-service job arranged through Express Personnel Services of Oklahoma City. “I thought temping would let me look over a company and see if I’d like to work there,” she says. “I came here on a short-term assignment. Then a long-term position came up and I took it.”

2. A stable work history.

Temping allows you to walk away from jobs you don’t like without being branded as a job-hopper. Since you’re working for the temp firm, not the client company, you won’t have questionable gaps on your resume, says Barbara Alvis, manager of Express Services’ Champaign, Ill., office. “Your resume won’t look as if you bounced around,” she says.

Both Garcia and Rogers have left positions that they disliked. “I had one job that was supposed to work into something full-time,” says Garcia. “After a week I knew it wasn’t for me. I notified the agency, and left as soon as a replacement was found.”

3. Free training.

At professional and clerical levels, temp firms excel at training. Many recent graduates who never received computer training learn through temp courses, says Gretchen Kreske, manager of strategic information at Manpower.

Kelly Services’ self-paced training program allows workers to train and certify themselves in a range of office software, including pre-release versions of new software, says Camden. “When Microsoft Office for Windows 95 was released, we’d already trained hundreds of people” who could then fill assignments immediately, he says.

Demand is strong for independent contractors, especially technical professionals. To attract them, temp firms provide extensive technical training. Manpower, for instance, offers 350 technology-related courses, including free training via the Internet ( in JavaScript and LiveWire programming.

4. Inside information.

Once you’re working in a company, you have an edge on other candidates. After learning your temp job, start networking to discover full-time opportunities, says Smith. “Once you get to know people, even if you’re in a low-level job, you can get your foot in the door to a department which is doing work you’re interested in,” she says.

If you’re in a clerical job, make sure others know your abilities. “Let them know that even though you’re doing A and B as a temp, your skills and education are in M, N and O,” says Bruce Steinberg, a spokesman for the National Association of Temporary Services and Staffing (NATSS) in Alexandria, Va.

At large companies, you may have access to internal job postings. “If you’re in a position for a week and see a job posted, you can apply for it. You can’t do that from outside,” says Rogers.

5. Relaxed hiring process.

Companies rarely subject temps to the same rigorous interviews as a new hire. Stroud, the Bellingham technical writer, was asked to meet company officials before starting her temp assignment “but it was really informal,” she says. “They said they just liked to meet people before bringing them in. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d applied” directly.

Gale Lucero, an Eastern New Mexico University graduate, says he, too, found the hiring process less intimidating as a temp. Now an engineering contractor with a Phoenix aerospace company, Lucero says he drove by the company and stopped to drop off a resume at an on-site Manpower office.

“A couple of weeks later I got a call back,” he says. “I was interviewed the same day, got an offer and accepted it. The interview only lasted about 30 minutes.”

6. A flexible lifestyle.

Many temps appreciate the freedom temping provides. “If you take short-term positions, and want a week off because something has come up, you can do it,” says Garcia. “You can choose [whether] to take assignments.”

Camden says many professionals on Kelly’s rosters don’t want to be tied down to permanent roles. “They feel that temping gives them control of their lives,” he says. “We call these people lifestyle employees.”

Some corporations, such as Boston-based Fidelity Investments, have in-house temp agencies. “Our professional temps have chosen that as a lifestyle,” says Joan Bassett, director of Fidelity Temporary Services. “They’re generally computer professionals and they want to stay involved in development, learn new skills and work with cutting-edge technologies.”

To enjoy time off and still receive assignments, strive to build a reputation as a top-notch employee who can fill a multitude of roles, Rogers says.

“When you start, you [have] to be flexible until you prove to the agency that you’re a good worker,” he says. “You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to work this week’ or ‘I only want to work Mondays and Wednesdays from 12 to 4.’ You may want to take Tuesday off but if an agency calls and you say no, it won’t call any more.”

Between jobs, remain visible and market yourself, says Rogers. “Don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Call the service every day. If you can, pick up your check at the office every week instead of having it mailed, and say hello to your counselor.”

7. A decent income.

Clerical temps can earn between $8 and $20 hourly, depending on their experience and location, says Kreske. For example, the average pay for typists nationally is nearly $10 an hour, but rises to $15.53 in New York, reports NATSS. And an engineer who would earn $25.37 an hour in New York would be paid $33.71 in Boston and $14.57 in Atlanta.

Hourly rates for technical employees can exceed those for permanent hires. One study shows that professional temps are paid the same or slightly more than their permanent counterparts, while office and blue-collar temps tend to earn slightly less, says Steinberg.

Given these pay rates, you can stay solvent while pursuing other goals. For instance, one freelance translator works at a telemarketing firm to maintain her income between translating assignments, says Smith.

Rick Twaro, who graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, two years ago, is temping while looking for a full-time position. He’s now doing office work in the accounting department of a food company while seeking a sales and marketing position in high-tech or health care.

“The flexibility helps me with my job search,” he says. “When I go on an interview they give me half a day or a day off with no questions.”

Rich Lawson, a University of California- Berkeley graduate, who temps while writing plays and screen plays, has used temping income to take trips. Registered with national temp firms, his record is easily accessed wherever he goes.

He once spent a year traveling around the country. “Whenever I ran out of money, I called the agency and described the kind of work I’d like to do. I’d work for two weeks to get money to go to the next town,” he says.

8. Secure health benefits.

While benefits don’t match those offered full-time employees, you can secure the bare minimum—health insurance, vacation days and 401(k) retirement plans—at many temp firms. Some agencies offer benefits on a prorated basis, with fuller perks available to temps who have worked more hours, but these requirements can be difficult for new graduates to meet. Deductible levels may also be high.

Working for only one agency can allow you to achieve the hourly minimum for benefits faster, but many temps register with several agencies. If you truly need benefits, strive to land long-term assignments, says Smith.

Life as a temp

As a temp, you may not work in an office or factory. Smith, for instance, has been a puppeteer at a toy store, teacher, resume writer, floral arranger, photo processor, technical editor and housecleaner. Many product demonstrators at stores and trade shows are temps.

Since her work was so diverse, Smith wondered how to tell new acquaintances what she did for a living. “How could I go to a party and explain that this week I walked around as a carrot to advertise a new vegetarian restaurant?” she asks. She learned to say that her work involved moving from job to job.

It’s easy to become discouraged when temping in menial jobs, she adds. “I used to think, ‘I’ve published three books, how come I’m photocopying and sending faxes?’ I got past it by realizing that these jobs aren’t my identity.” Smith adds that she always tells employers about her other skills as soon as she starts an assignment. “That way they know they don’t have a dummy here.”

Since the work is transient, you may wonder if you’ll ever make friends to at least lunch with. But temps say this fear is unfounded. “I know many temps who have been on two-week assignments and made friends for life,” says Rogers. “But you have to break the ice. You can’t wait for them to speak to you first.”

Lawson says the lifestyle is a “great way” to meet people. The Denver resident has held various temp jobs, from desktop publishing to data entry, and enjoys the constant challenge of working for new employers. “I’ve gained knowledge that I couldn’t have gotten any other way,” he says.

The best way to view temping is as an adventure, says Alvis, who temped for Express before accepting a supervisory job. “A new assignment can be nerve-wracking until you know what it’ll be like,” she says, “but you meet a lot of people and get to see what different types of offices are like.”

Lawson temps about 20 to 25 hours a week, mostly in the morning so he can spend afternoons writing. “The first couple of years, I would take whatever they gave me,” he says. “Now I have my afternoons free to write, pitch a project, have meetings.”

No matter how you plan, temping can be unpredictable, but keep a positive attitude. “Treat the work that you’re doing as important, even if it’s menial,” says Twaro. “Ask questions to learn how what you’re doing fits into the organization. Ask why something is done, as opposed to just how.” This will counter the perception that you’re “just a temp.”




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