Temporary Sanity

How to whet your career appetite -- and an employer's -- by working as a temp

Temporary help. If the term brings to mind bush-league pinch hitters and two-bit saxophone players, it's time to adjust your attitude. Think of the temporary workers who made a lasting difference in your life: the babysitter who taught you to jitterbug; the yardman who took time out to jump-start your car; the substitute teacher who successfully explained the Pythagorean theorem.

Temporary workers will play a durable role in the workplace of the next century. And if you're looking for work, either part-time or full-time, working as a temp is a popular way to see what you can do and then to show it.

Now, there must be a best way to begin as a temp, a best way to make use of your talent and time. We asked Debra Cotten, area manager of Millennium Staffing and of Accountants on Call, for some tips on getting started as a temp, and these are some highlights of her advice:

"First, identify what you want to do, and then try to align yourself with an agency that does a good deal of business in those particular arenas," Cotten says.

Some agencies specialize in clerical or light-industrial work. Others concentrate on medical, legal or computer-related jobs. You'll find nine pages and more than 150 listings of temporary agencies in the Yellow Pages, but taking time to seek a good match between you and your adopted agency will get you off to a solid start.

"I would definitely check out the agency to find out how long they've been in business," Cotten says. "This is an industry that has grown dramatically over the last 10 years, and we've seen a lot of our competitors come and go. There's an implicit message that is sent just by the fact that we're still around."

The era of fringe benefits may seem to have vanished, but Cotten says to take a peek into an agency's bag of perks: "Those can include, but are not limited to, medical insurance, vacation pay, holiday pay, vision care and free training. We offer testing and training in about 40 different software packages, and it's free of charge to any of our candidates. So, obviously, a candidate would want to align themselves with a service that could provide them with those types of enhancements."

Most agencies do not collect cash out-of-pocket from their temporary workers. Their profit comes from billing the companies that use their services, from a portion of workers' paychecks, or a combination of the two. Whatever their method, it's wise to check out how an agency is paying itself before signing up.

After you've done all your homework, Cotten says, it's OK to align yourself with more than one company if you think doing so will better serve you.

"We typically encourage our candidates to select two or three different services, simply because we don't have all the business in the marketplace and our competitors don't either," she says. "We specialize, many times, in different areas, so if a candidate is flexible and determined to find a position, then it's probably in their best interest to talk to a couple of agencies."

Be up-front with an agency about the hours you're able to work, the days you're available and the kind of work you're willing to take. Some agencies are less forgiving about temporary workers repeatedly saying no when offered temporary work.

"We tell our candidates, 'Let us know what your parameters are. We may call you with some positions that are outside of those parameters, but you always have the option to tell us no.'" Cotten says. "We would rather call someone and give them the opportunity to stretch what they can do a little bit rather than have them miss an opportunity. The more flexible the individual is, the more jobs will be available for them."

Working as a temp is an ideal way to explore your interests in the workplace without the immediate demands of a full-time position, Cotten says.

"It's the 'try before you buy' mentality," she says. "For both the client and the candidate, before you make that commitment to a permanent position, you have that opportunity to make sure it's a good fit.

"Temporary positions work well for people in school, or who recently graduated, who are exploring the workplace. Also, parents coming back into the workforce -- maybe they haven't worked for five or seven years, and they're trying to get their foot back in the door. Not only can they try out different positions, they can also have access to your free training.

"A third group that benefits are people who have recently relocated to the area, who may not have a clear picture of the opportunities that are out there. Working with an agency, they can check out the different geographic areas, the industries and the corporate cultures of St. Louis.

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