Temporary Workers Career

Employees who work on an assignment or contractual basis are called temporary workers. They usually work through agencies, staffing offices, or placement centers that place qualified workers in jobs lasting from one day to months according to their educational background, work experience, or profession.

People work as temps for several reasons. The majority of people temp because they are between full-time positions. Some enjoy the flexibility that temporary assignments offer. Others use the opportunity to try out different occupations or companies in hopes of being hired in a permanent capacity. Companies from almost every industry hire temporary workers to fill in when regular staff members are ill or on vacation. Special projects and seasonal work are other reasons for employment.

This is a vast industry, employing 2.86 million people per day in the United States, according to the American Staffing Association, which monitors the industry and represents about 1,600 agencies nationwide.

History of Temporary Workers Career

Temporary WorkersThroughout time, some people earned at least part of their income taking short jobs when the work was available. People even traveled to other towns for work, leaving their families behind. The National Association of Personnel Services records the earliest private employment services existed in 14th-century Germany, though no detail is available regarding the type of work. Kelly Services Inc. was one of the first temporary staffing agencies in the United States. In 1946 its founder, William Russell Kelly, realized there was a great demand for office and clerical help in Detroit, Michigan. Businesses throughout town needed reliable help, though not on a daily basis. Kelly’s first employees were housewives and students—two groups with very flexible schedules. They were able to accept or decline assignments as their schedules allowed.

Soon other temporary agencies were placing qualified workers in a variety of businesses. The first temps were mainly receptionists or clerical help; many had no skills other than those associated with secretarial work. Temporary workers are better prepared today—most are computer savvy and have solid work experience. Also, a large number of temps are professionals with backgrounds in law, accounting, or health care, and there is a growing trend for placement agencies to focus on one specific occupational group.

The Job of Temporary Workers

The largest category of temporary workers is administrative and clerical workers, comprising almost half of all temporary workers in the United States. Reception, secretarial, and administrative work are some assignments in this category. In the past, collating, answering phones, typing, and filing were the major duties of temporary workers. Today, many administrative temporaries are skilled in word processing, various computer programs, and other procedures. Other administrative workers, such as medical secretaries, legal secretaries, and bookkeepers, have additional training and skills to help them better perform special duties.

Industrial workers are also employed as temporaries. Assignments may include inspecting, labeling, packaging, and record keeping in factories, warehouses, and docks. Staff shortages or seasonal peak periods are some reasons for contracting temporary help. Though a majority of industrial assignments do not require advanced training or skills, most businesses prefer temporary workers to have past work experience.

Managerial temporaries come from a variety of backgrounds. This group includes retired businesspeople, recent M.B.A. graduates, and freelance business consultants. Many businesses hire managerial temporaries for short-term projects. For example, consultants may analyze a company’s performance record, suggest and implement changes, and exit the project soon afterward. They are also hired to motivate staff or to expedite the release of a product or service. Temporaries hired in this field usually have degrees in business or related subjects; some have advanced degrees. Managerial temporaries with solid work experience or reputable references are highly desired.

Computer programmers, systems analysts, and hardware and software engineers are just some of the information technology (IT) specialists that work as temporaries. Often referred to as “techsperts,” they are contracted to help meet deadlines or work on short-term projects. Companies find it more cost effective to hire temporary IT people than to train existing employees on the latest computer technology, especially when deadlines are short. Web designers are also in demand to design and create new company Web sites or tweak existing ones. Help-desk specialists are often enlisted to provide support for a company’s IT department.

Professional occupations also provide abundant opportunities for those interested in short-term assignments. In recent years, companies have increasingly relied on contracting accounting professionals to compile financial reports, perform audits, and prepare company tax reports. Installing new accounting systems and training permanent staff in the use of such systems are other tasks completed by accounting temporaries. Businesses often hire temporary workers to work on short-term projects or during seasonal peak periods. Smaller businesses, especially, rely on temporaries to provide manpower to their accounting departments. Accounting temps must have a degree in accounting, taxation, or business administration; many are certified public accountants.

Engineers or scientists are often hired to work on special projects or new research. Companies contract engineers to design and develop a new product from start to finish or a portion of the manufacturing process. Pharmaceutical companies need scientists of varying specialties to research, test, and develop new medicines. Temporary workers in this field are highly specialized. All are college graduates; most have advanced degrees and work experience in their specialties.

For special projects or to provide assistance in complicated legal cases, law firms often contract lawyers on a short-term basis to work alongside their existing legal team. Lawyers may be assigned to write and file briefs, take depositions, prepare witnesses for trial, or provide litigation support. Paralegals may also work on temporary assignments to research cases, prepare documents, or provide other legal assistance.

Health professionals are enjoying great growth in temporary services. Nurses, especially, are high in demand. Agencies are actively recruiting nurses for assignments ranging in length from one day to months at a time. Hospitals and nursing homes are often short staffed and rely on registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and certified nursing attendants to work the less desirable night and weekend shifts. Health professionals may also be assigned to care for home health patients. Hospitals in rural towns or remote locations rely heavily on health professionals to work short-term contracts. Physical therapists, radiological technicians, dialysis technicians, medical assistants, and medical records clerks may also work on temporary assignments.

Temporary Workers Career Requirements

High School

Very few students plan their high school curriculum based on the goal of working on a temporary basis. Most people follow a chosen career path and find along the way that temporary work suits their personal lives, educational goals, or professional ambitions better than a full-time, long-term position.

High school courses in business, word processing, computers, math, and English will prepare you to work as an administrative or clerical temp. Otherwise, you should study the subjects that fit with your chosen career field.

Postsecondary Training

To work as a temp in any professional capacity, such as nursing, accounting, law, or information technology, you must complete the educational requirements for that profession and have some work experience. Many clients require temporary workers to have college degrees or solid training before offering non-entry-level assignments such as managerial or technical projects. Good computer and communication skills are a must.

For students with some postsecondary training, working in a temporary, entry-level position can provide paid work experience and contacts that may help in later job searches.

Certification or Licensing

Certification or licensing is required for some professional temporary work. For example, before accepting a contract as a traveling nurse, you must have a license to practice in the state or country where the assignment is located. Likewise, lawyers must have a valid license to practice in the assigned location. Agencies will usually help temporary candidates apply for additional licenses or seek reciprocity.

Other Requirements

The transient nature of temporary work is not for everyone. Imagine having to adapt to a different set of coworkers with each assignment, not to mention a new office environment and the politics that go with it. For nurses and other medical workers on temporary or agency assignments, it means having to work your shift without the benefit of a hospital orientation. “You really need to be assertive” to succeed in this type of work environment, attests Mary Ann Mason, a nurse in Illinois. She prefers this type of working situation, since it gives her the flexibility to structure her workload around family activities.

Exploring Temporary Workers Careers

One of the major appeals of temporary work is the great flexibility and variety that it provides. Because almost every industry employs temporary workers, your options for exploring the field are vast. You can apply for a summer job or seasonal work during holidays. Usually, businesses look for extra help during busy times. Visit a temporary placement office and shadow a recruiter for the day. You’ll see firsthand what recruiters look for when interviewing potential temporary workers. Do they have the proper skills and work experience? Do they look and act professional?

There are many Web sites devoted to the world of temporary work. Read personal work experiences, advice columns on how to survive new office politics, and tips on interviewing. See The Contract Employee’s Handbook (http://www.cehandbook.com/).


One of the greatest advantages of temporary work is that employment opportunities exist nationwide. Most temporary workers use an employment agency or staffing service to find assignments. If basic office skills are your strength, try agencies such as Kelly or Manpower Services. Both are known in the business world for having pools of dependable office support workers as well as highly trained professionals such as technical workers and engineers.

If you specialize in a certain profession, contact agencies that cater to those fields. Accountemps, based in California, for example, assigns certified public accountants and other accounting professionals to work on short-term and long-term projects throughout the United States, as well as in Europe and Australia. Special Counsel Incorporated, a nationwide legal staffing agency, places lawyers, paralegals, and legal assistants in temporary assignments. Clients include top law firms needing extra manpower for large projects, or corporations needing legal expertise.

Starting Out

Most temps work through an agency or placement center. Before the agency can place you, they will conduct a screening interview to assess your skills and work experience. You will need an updated resume, any certification or licensing papers, and a list of references. Be prepared to let the agency know of any preferences you may have in terms of assignments—type of project, location, hours, and any physical accommodations you may need. You may have to take several tests depending on the type of temp work for which you are applying. For example, administrative workers may have to take a test to measure their keyboarding speed or computer knowledge. Training is sometimes encouraged to keep temps current with computer programs and systems as demanded by clients. The agency may make security or professional checks, verify school transcripts, or order drug testing before you are given an assignment.

You can find a list of agencies and placement centers in your local phone book or on the Internet. Listings and ads will usually specify their specialties.


Many people view temporary work assignments as a great way to develop industry contacts. Solid work performance may catch the attention of management and result in a temp-to-hire situation. A temporary worker may also view advancement in terms of choice assignments with good companies offering higher pay.

Most agencies offer additional training, at no cost, to their employees. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services, 66 percent of temporary workers acquire new skills while on assignments. As temporary workers gain knowledge with new equipment and software programs and acquire other highly desirable skills, they can progress to different temporary jobs, many with a better pay scale.


Temporary workers are paid hourly or per project by the agency or personnel supply firm. In turn the agency bills the client company for every hour of work, including any fees or commission. According to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services, temps receive a little more than 70 percent of the billable rate; the agency keeps the remainder. For example, if the temp is paid $21 an hour, the agency actually bills the client $30 per hour and keeps the remaining $9 as its commission. A 30 percent commission may seem high, but from this amount, the agency needs to pay the temp’s Social Security, any training costs, job counseling, and office operating and administrative costs.

The hourly rate varies greatly depending on the type of work or occupation. Administrative workers make about $10 an hour or more, according to the American Staffing Association. On the higher end, some agencies offer $50 an hour or more for contract nurses. In addition, a stipend is offered to cover expenses such as travel and housing. This is often the case when the nurse or other health professional is assigned outside of their home base.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that median hourly wages for temporary workers in 2004 ranged from $7.80 an hour for hand packers and packagers to $10.05 for receptionists and information clerks to $30.37 an hour for registered nurses.

For most kinds of temporary work, the hourly rate is much higher than that offered to permanent employees. This is possible because benefits such as paid vacation, sick time, health insurance, and other perks are not usually offered to temporary workers. Some agencies may offer benefits to temporary workers after they log in a specific number of working days. Benefits may include medical coverage and short-term disability insurance, but the employee contribution for such benefits is usually higher compared to the contribution paid by fulltime, permanent workers. Many temps receive insurance benefits from other sources, most often a spouse working in a full-time job.

Work Environment

The work environment depends on the particular assignment. Industrial work most often takes place at factories or outdoor facilities. Most office assignments are indoors. Some agencies ask clients to provide temporary workers with desks or designated workspaces, especially if the project is long-term.

Workdays and hours also vary from assignment to assignment. Usually temporary workers follow the company’s work hours. However, if a project deadline is looming, temporary workers may be asked to work overtime or on weekends.

Temporary workers are not usually given preferential treatment by their clients. Work spaces may be small, and interaction with permanent staff, both on professional and social levels, may be limited. Projects are likely to be the ones no one else wants to do. Support staff temporaries, especially, may be faced with mountains of papers to collate, staple, and hand out, while simultaneously answering a bank of phones. On the other hand, some offices may view temporary workers as much needed and appreciated manpower to meet tough deadlines.

Temporary Workers Career Outlook

Because almost every industry—from manufacturing to health care—uses temporary workers or consultants, employment opportunities abound. In fact, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, this field is expected to grow much faster than the average. This industry is expected to add almost 1.6 million new jobs through 2014, making temporary employment one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Most new jobs will occur in the largest occupational groups: office and administrative support, production, and transportation and material moving. There will also be many opportunities in specialized fields such as nursing, health care, accounting, and information technology.

In order to stay competitive, companies must be cost effective. Temporary workers can give companies the power of additional manpower to meet important deadlines or work on special projects and provide support when they are short staffed. Contracting temps saves businesses money because they do not have to pay costly benefits for temporary staff. Also, companies can save time by contracting with temps already trained in a particular computer program instead of retraining existing employees. The American Staffing Association expects that temps in professional occupations, especially health care, law, and engineering, will be in great demand. Many new jobs will occur in federal, state, and local governments that will continue to contract many of its projects.

Many people enjoy working in a temporary work environment because it allows them the flexibility of choosing when and where to work. Others take advantage of temp work because it gives them access to free training. People who are unsure of their career path view temp work as a chance to audition different industries before committing to one. However, a majority of temporary workers are between jobs or are using their temporary assignments as a possible bridge to full-time employment.

While flexibility is a major perk associated with temporary work, it can also be a serious disadvantage. Once an assignment is complete, temporary workers are usually the first to be let go during a slow economy. Given a smaller working budget, businesses tend to manage with existing employees instead of contracting additional help. Also, the notion of hiring temporary workers when a company is downsizing its workforce is considered bad office politics.

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