While the job market remains sluggish, temporary work is one area that's done very well in the economic recovery. Companies are keeping their temps longer and are even using them to fill professional and high-ranking positions.
The average daily number of temporary workers employed during the first quarter of 2012 was more than 2.5 million. That's up from a low of 2.1 million in early 2009, according to the American Staffing Association.
Temporary work was once considered a leading indicator for the job market — a harbinger of improved prospects for people seeking permanent positions. But in this recovery, staffing agencies say fewer employers are taking temps onboard as permanent workers.
More Opportunities, At Higher Ranks
"It is clear that companies are using temp and contract workers — and unfortunately not making those permanent hires — at this point," says Joanie Ruge, senior vice president and chief employment officer for the temp agency Randstad Holding.
"Because there's still some uncertainty and [companies are] wondering if the economic conditions are sustainable, this offers them some good flexibility," Ruge says.
Historically, temp positions have also been associated with clerical and manufacturing jobs. But that's also shifting in the current economy. One of the biggest growth areas in temping, Ruge says, is high-skilled work: engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, accounting and finance.
And employers are even hiring temps for jobs in the higher ranks. Ruge says professional positions make up about half of Randstad's business.
Ed Schultz has been acting comptroller or chief financial officer for various companies on a temporary basis for more than a decade — by choice.
Schultz says companies thinned out their chief officer ranks — or their "C-suites" — during the recession. Now that the economy is recovering, there's more demand for mergers and acquisition work, he says, but not quite enough to justify a full-time hire.
A 'Sea Change'
And, Schultz says, it may be that many businesses will never fully hire back their executive bench.
"My feeling is that it's a permanent change," Schultz says. "It's a sea change that we're seeing more activity in that interim C-suite area."
Normally, the pattern with temp work is that it is cyclical: It goes up when the economy is good, and down when it's bad.
But during leaner times, companies experiment with their workforce and sometimes make permanent changes, according to Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development and a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
"There's something more happening here," Theodore says. "I think temping is becoming a more important feature of employers' workforce strategies, and a bigger part of the careers of workers."
Companies use temps because they can pay fewer benefits, take on fewer legal responsibilities and fire them easily, Theodore says.
But those perks for the employer usually come at a cost to the worker.
"Those temp jobs are often disconnected from the career pathways and job ladders that exist within a company," making it harder for workers to move up, Theodore says.
Still, for people like TaShea Mosley, 23, working as a temp is one of the few ways to get her foot in the door in a down economy. She wasn't able to find a full-time job, so she started temping as an administrative assistant through Manpower earlier this year.
"The only thing that differentiates me from anyone is that my badge is different," Mosley says. "They treat me as though I am a full-time employee, actually. I just don't have all the benefits of being one."
Mosley says she loves her current posting and hopes to be hired on permanently. The company has a hiring freeze, but she's hoping her job performance will earn her the security of a permanent position.
"When you're a temp, it's more like you're disposable," the Atlanta resident says. "One day you can have a job, and the next day you can't. So it's always kinda like a little bit of a Russian roulette; you never know if it's going to be your time to go or not."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Want to feel a little bit better about the economy? There is one part of the job market that is doing well: Temporary work. In fact, the temping industry has recovered much of the ground it lost during the recession. Companies are keeping their temps longer, even using them to fill high-ranking positions.
As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, the increased reliance on short-term workers may not be temporary.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: TaShea Mosley is a financially mature 23. She owns a house in Atlanta and is helping raise her sister's child. But she struck out trying to find a full-time position. So earlier this year, she started temping as an administrative assistant through Manpower.
TASHEA MOSLEY: The only thing that really differentiates me from anyone is that my badge is different.
MOSLEY: But they treat me as if I am a full-time employee, actually. I just don't have all the benefits of being one.
NOGUCHI: Mosley says she loves her current posting. The company has a hiring freeze, but she's hoping her work will earn her the security of a permanent job.
MOSLEY: When you're a temp, it's more like you're disposable. One day you can have a job and the next day you can't. So it's always kind of like a little bit of a Russian Roulette, you never know if it's going to be your time to go or not.
NOGUCHI: In the past, the road from temp to permanent job was well-travelled. But now, less so. Three years of steady increases in temporary hiring has not led to more robust employment.
JOANIE RUGE: It is clear that companies are using temporary and contract workers and, unfortunately, not making those permanent hires at this point.
NOGUCHI: Joanie Ruge is chief employment analyst for Randstad, an agency that supplies temps to thousands of companies.
RUGE: Because there's still some uncertainty and they're wondering if the economic conditions are sustainable, this offers them some good flexibility.
NOGUCHI: One of the biggest growth areas in temping, Ruge says, is high-skilled work - engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, accounting and finance. Professional positions, she says, make up about half of Randstad's business. Companies are hiring temps, even for jobs in the highest ranks.
Ed Schultz, for example, has been acting comptroller or chief financial officer for various companies on a temporary basis.
ED SCHULTZ: I do like it very much, and I've done it for 12 or 13 years.
NOGUCHI: Schultz says during the recession companies thinned out their chief officer ranks - or their C suites.
SCHULTZ: My feeling is that it's a permanent change, it's a sea change that we're certainly seeing more activity in that interim C suite area.
NOGUCHI: He says even as the economy recovers, companies have remained reluctant to commit to a full hire.
Nik Theodore is director of the Center for Urban Economic Development and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says, normally, temporary work is very cyclical. It goes up when the economy is good, and down when it's bad.
NIK THEODORE: There's something more happening here and I think temping is becoming a more important feature of employers' workforce strategies and a bigger part of the careers of workers.
NOGUCHI: Theodore says companies may keep things this way, as a way of keeping more of their workers at arm's length - paying them fewer benefits, taking on fewer legal responsibilities, and being able to fire them easily. For workers, Theodore says, that means fewer opportunities to move up.
THEODORE: Those temp jobs often are disconnected from the career pathways and job ladders that exist within a company.
NOGUCHI: But for people like Wendy Patterson, temp work is one of the only pathways back into the workforce. After getting laid off three years ago, she sent as many as 100 resumes a month without getting full-time work. Now, Patterson says she's using her current assignment to apply for a permanent position within the firm.
Are you a little nervous?
WENDY PATTERSON: No, I'm confident.
NOGUCHI: Patterson says she needs the benefits that come with full-time jobs.
PATTERSON: I am a breast cancer survivor so it's important for me to have insurance, so I can have my annual mammograms and my annual check ups.
NOGUCHI: Because she's a temp, Patterson says she's conscious of the impressions she makes.
PATTERSON: I'm at work 15 minutes before I'm supposed to be here, every day.
NOGUCHI: She says it's a lot like being on a job interview, every day. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.