Temporary workforce gains strength

Once viewed as a stopgap measure, the use of temporary workers is now included in the long-term planning efforts of many companies.

In a national study, more than 70 percent of executives polled said they rely on the staffing practice and include a place for it in their overall human resource budgets.

The study, which was commissioned by California-based OfficeTeam and conducted by an independent research firm, included interviews with 150 senior executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest companies.

Locally, one staffing service has seen its placement of temporary workers increase by a third in the past year because of increased demand by area companies.


Following the economy

Volatile market conditions require companies to be more agile and responsive to changing circumstances, and supplementing work teams with interim workers may allow them to adjust staffing levels quickly and cost-effectively according to demand.

Tom Smith, production manager at Vancouver-based Kaso Plastics, said the custom plastic injection molding company budgets for temporary workers and typically supplements about 8 percent of its production staff with them.

“We use them for the jumps up and down in production mostly,” he said.

Currently, 11 out of the production area’s 99 employees are temporary – higher than usual, Smith said.

Kaso primarily uses temps for entry-level positions, but with the right skill sets, they may have an opportunity to move up in the company.

The use of temporary workers changes with the labor market, said Lisa Nisenfeld, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.

When there’s abundant skilled labor, companies often use staffing services as their front door and can give workers a try.

When the labor market gets tighter, companies have to compete for workers, which often means offering a direct job, Nisenfeld said. Then, staffing services shift to become another source for potential workers because they have connections with a large number of people.

In times of economic downturn, companies may find benefit in relying on temporary workers.

“Temporary service allows companies to get someone in there, get a project done and not have to worry about firing or unemployment costs,” said Allison Beam, staffing consultant for Boly Welch, a staffing service that serves Vancouver and Portland.

By using temporary workers, employers don’t have to pay permanent salaries or benefits. The practice may even boost productivity and retention rates because it eases the work burden on full-time staff, the national study indicates.

Kelly Services Inc.’s Vancouver branch is placing about 150 people a week – up about 33 percent over last year, said Branch Manager Susan Schneiderman.

“I think businesses have been in the throws of growth but aren’t sure they can sustain the growth,” she said.

Companies are using temporary assignments as a way to evaluate prospective full-time employees, and more and more are using them on a project basis.

“The value of employment services is being recognized,” Schneiderman said. “We no longer have to introduce a company to the idea of a contingent workforce.”

Smith said using a staffing service saves him from worrying about staffing so much.

“Through the ups and downs, I can add and reduce the temporary staff quickly,” he said. “To be honest, we can weed through them pretty easily. There aren’t a lot of ties to a temp, and I just call the staffing service and say this person’s not working out.”

Companies are increasingly worried about whether a worker fits into a work environment, not only about whether a worker has the ability to do the job, Beam said.

On the flip side, workers are also feeling out the company.

Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers are demanding job satisfaction, Schneiderman said.

Many temporary workers are between long-term jobs and temping is a source of supplemental income, but some are using it for support until they find the right thing, Nisenfeld said.

“People are more concerned about the fit and some are willing to wait for the right job,” she said. “It’s not just about salary and skills anymore.”


Demand for specialized skills

Companies are increasingly demanding more specialized skills from temporary workers. It’s not enough for warehouse workers to be able to lift – they have to be able to handle inventory and complete data entry – and receptionists have to know Microsoft Word and Excel at the least, Schneiderman said.

Businesses are recognizing they can hire highly skilled project professionals through staffing services in specialized areas like finance, information technology and administrative support.

“People call us because they figure we have people with higher skill levels,” she said. “If they wanted mediocre workers, they’d hire anyone off the street.”

In an attempt to increase the skill set of many under-qualified workers, Kelly Services offers a free computer skills tutorial for its workers. WorkSource also has skills training.

“We don’t want to just put people in our database,” Schneiderman said. “We want to put them to work and increase their skills so they can earn more money and get better placements.”

Beam said many workers are coming to staffing services with more sophisticated computer skills. Some have experience with PageMaker and InDesign, where basic computer skills used to cut it.

Schneiderman said there have been layoffs in Southwest Washington this year, which has increased some of the skill sets being funneled into staffing services.

Hot temp sectors include manufacturing, office staff and accountants.

As the forecasted skills shortage grows nearer, these companies should be prepared to compete harder for these higher skilled workers. But a temporary workforce that is presenting itself, perhaps for the first time in such force, is retirees.

The pool may grow substantially in the next few years as active boomers who may not be ready to stop working completely continue to retire.

Nisenfeld expects to see continued strength in the temporary market in the coming months. She also expects there will be some loosening of the labor market, but it will be offset by retirements and regular exits from the workforce.

“Some companies are going to have to rethink what they’re doing to recruit because it’s so competitive for good employees,” Schneiderman said. “They can’t compete with low, low salaries.”

Nisenfeld said she wouldn’t be surprised if most companies budget for temporary help – the SWWDC does.

“It’s a great way to handle unforeseen tasks and backed up workflow,” she said. “It’s a regular cost of doing business.”


Megan Patrick can be reached at mpatrick@vbjusa.com.