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Why Temps Suck


I was a temp once. I seem to remember endless filing, and watching the clock crawl. I recall daydreaming, staring out the windows of New York City skyscrapers, wondering where these menial tasks would eventually lead me. I recount laissez-faire managers, understaffed and overworked. I spent months at a customer service call center for an inept baby furniture catalog, reassuring emotional, expectant mothers that their carseats would arrive on time. And weeks at a pharmaceutical company, photocopying enormous binders (until the copier jammed, and critical Board documents became a ticker tape parade). It wasn’t until the temp agency themselves hired me (temporarily, of course) that I got to see firsthand why temps suck.

Last-minute requests to replace sick or injured workers flooded the phones. Meanwhile, cancelations poured in from sick or injured temps. Rarely did the clients’ search criteria meet the candidates’ skill set, and even more rarely were the right hires available to show up 15 minutes ago.

Granted, this was before the days of the internet, which should make the search for the right temp as simple as finding a date on match.com, right? Then why, when I found myself on the receiving end of temps over a decade later, was it still so chancy? I’d submit my requirements to HR, who conveyed them to the temp agency, who would subsequently send someone who didn’t meet those requirements at all (not to mention their lack of social skills and affinity for cheap perfume). But by that time I was so desperate for an extra set of hands that I’d spend an unreasonable amount of time training, cross-checking and correcting mistakes, often to the point where I’d wonder if it would have been faster to have done it myself. Sound familiar?

Temp_plate_blue.svg.jpgPerhaps the crux of the problem might lie right there in the title: “temp.” The moniker actually dissuades workers from becoming too invested (after all, it’s only temporary). Where is the incentive to excel at these tireless and tedious tasks? On the flip side, why should employers empower free agents who could literally take off at any moment?

As the gig economy grows, It’s no wonder that “temps” are playing second fiddle to “freelancers,” “contractors,” and “contingent workers.” The difference? Personal investment. Freelancers and contractors seek short-term or project-based work, and make a career out of taking on various assignments. Contingent workers are hired on a trial basis with the potential for permanent hire. These arrangements incentivise top performance and hinge on a good reputation.

According to a study by Elance-oDesk and the Freelancer Union, 53 million Americans— a third of the workforce—did freelance work in 2014 (though, according to the American Staffing Association, only 3 million of these were employed by temp staffing agencies). Congruently, an Ardent poll estimates that by 2017, contingent workers will account for nearly 45 percent of the world’s total workforce. This flexibility allows companies to contract when budgets are tight and expand according when revenue and demand increases. Still scarred from the Great Recession, even fast-growing companies are reluctant to over-hire, making contract and contingent hires the more prudent choice. Demand is high: nearly half of employers say they plan to hire temporary or contract workers this year, according to a CareerBuilder study.

The arrangement also means less commitment for the employee. A skilled tech specialist can take on contingent assignments and have the flexibility to travel or explore other interests, rather than being tied down. Not to mention the experience of working at multiple companies. “A large number of people, particularly in IT and health care, do this,” says Jon Osborne, VP of Strategic Research at Staffing Industry Analysts. “That is how they live. Both the employer and employee side are seeing some advantages.”

So what’s the drawback? For companies who use a traditional temp agency, get ready to tack on 25-150% of the worker’s salary. According to Debra Bergevine, Chief Marketing Officer at DCR Workforce, it’s not unusual for a company to be spending $30 million to $100 million on agency-supplied workers.

Fortunately, technological advances and the rise in corporate alumni networks provide an alternative, more cost-effective and reliable recruiting channel. By offering an exclusive platform for current and former employees, companies can publicize professional development and contract opportunities to a trusted talent network. The average amount of time it takes to hire an independent worker has decreased from 43 days (via traditional staffing methods) to 3 days (via an online marketplace). Bring that number down even further when you have a vetted network of current and former employees, whose performance and caliber you can measure from first-hand experience.

From Boomers who aren’t quite ready to retire, Millennials who want freedom and fulfilment, and Gen-Xers who are building families and careers simultaneously, the independent worker trend isn’t going away anytime soon. Is your company ready?

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