Each day, nearly 3 million American workers head to work at temporary jobs. They range from clerks to construction workers, attorneys to medical aides, engineers to accountants.

Once the realm of people who preferred part-time, flexible work schedules or newbies needing a foot in the door, agency-placed temporary jobs are a growing haven for laid-off professionals and those in skilled trades. And with companies cutting millions of full-time jobs this year, staffing industry experts say they’re fielding more and more applications from seasoned workers.

“Staffing firms have been flooded with candidates,” says Steve Berchem, vice president of the American Staffing Association, a staffing industry group based in Alexandria, Va. After a slump in 2008, hiring has stabilized this year, with professional and managerial posts making up about 50 percent of temporary jobs.

The weekly paycheck may not be as fat as at your previous job, but it definitely pays to work at temporary jobs. The average worker in the temporary sector earned $14.77 per hour in March, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Depending on your abilities and background, the rate can range from minimum wage for day laborers to more than $120 per hour for doctors and senior executives.

Here’s how temporary jobs pay
The nation’s temporary staffing services generated nearly $94 billion in 2008. Below are the fourth-quarter 2008 median hourly wages for a sampling of occupations:
Industrial $11.17
Office/clerical $13.82
Financial accounting $19.75
Legal $28.34
Travel nursing $35.40
Engineering/design $36.69
IT $44.69
Physicians $125.80

“And money isn’t the only factor,” says Jon Osborne, director of research for Staffing Industry Analysts in Los Altos, Calif. Aside from networking opportunities, training and fringe benefits, “a lot of (the) time, it’s sort of a lifestyle decision. People decide they don’t want the same 40-hour-a-week job forever.”

Whatever your reason, if you’re thinking of entering the temporary work force, here are eight tips for finding and keeping the best temporary job.

1. Target the right agencies. Investigate the Web sites and marketing materials of staffing firms to make sure they target your area of expertise.

Thousands of international, local and niche firms operate some 20,000 branch offices in the U.S. Some are listed in this story. For others, run a Google search of the name of your nearest large city and the words “temporary agencies,” and you’ll likely pull up an agency directory and, often, a grass-roots message board or Web site where veteran “temps” trade advice.

Peruse the job listings on a variety of staffing sites to get a feel for what matches your skills and goals. And don’t overlook word of mouth.

“Talk to people who have used the agency,” says Janet Sloan, president of Seville Staffing in Chicago. “Find out who has treated them well.”

2. Tweak your resume. Because temporary jobs tend to be goal-oriented and time-specific, staffing agencies and their clients aren’t necessarily interested in reading a resume with a blow-by-blow chronology of your career. Rather, they want to know of specific skill sets, the details on projects you’ve run or other major accomplishments.

“Show us any cost-saving measures you’ve been involved in, or whether you successfully set up a new department or helped develop a new product,” says James Mack, business unit leader of Kelly Financial Resources at Troy, Mich.-based Kelly Services Inc.

3. Be honest about salary expectations. Temporary job wages range dramatically based on market factors, geography, job seekers’ experience and other factors.

Whatever you do, don’t imply that you’ll take anything and then snub an assignment based on the pay. Decide upfront what you can survive on and tell the temp recruiter how much it is. Then the agency can assign jobs to you that fit your requirements.

“If you really want to turn off a recruiter, accept a job and then call us two days later to say, ‘I really can’t live on this,'” says Sloan.

Typically, temporary agencies charge the client company directly at a higher hourly rate than you’ll be paid, but you’ll still earn a competitive rate. “Staffing firms have to pay to attract talent (and) the client knows that,” Berchem says.

Your agency will bill the client and pay you — usually weekly. Normally, it also handles withholding for income taxes, Social Security and Medicare. They would also manage deductions for 401(k) savings, health insurance and other fringe benefits, if those are available.

The markup that agencies charge employers on top of your pay rate, which covers their administrative services, overhead and profits, varies according to their clients’ contracts. But generally, they range from 35 percent to 55 percent, says Osborne. After overhead costs are paid, the industry’s average profit margin is 4 percent to 5 percent, he says.

Workers with in-demand credentials may be able to bypass agencies and deal directly with employers, Osborne says, particularly in the information-technology arena. “If you are highly skilled and already have the connections, great,” he said. “But if you don’t, it’s easier to have someone else do all that for you.”

4. Prepare to counter the “overqualified” conundrum. Given the nation’s 8.9 percent unemployment rate, many people might be willing to check their egos at the door, as having a job takes on greater importance. An engineer might be willing to do warehouse work, or a marketing pro might offer to answer phones and perform data entry. Agencies understand that, but they are wary of placing seasoned candidates in lower-level positions for fear they’ll quit without completing the assignment.

Allay their fears by making it clear that you’re open to new job experiences and learning opportunities, as a way of making yourself more marketable. You, and the agency on your behalf, also can make the case that your know-how will streamline a temporary job.

“Candidates can pitch themselves from a cost-effectiveness standpoint,” Mack says. “If they can use their experience to get a project done faster, the client wins.”

5. Once you’re on the job, don’t coast. Temporary jobs are more than a paycheck. They’re a foot in the door to a prospective full-time employer, a networking opportunity and a chance to learn new skills in a new business sector.

Temping also gives you the chance to get paid for trying out entirely new fields, such as substitute teaching or call-center work, with an eye toward changing careers entirely.

Sharon Davis temped for more than three years after being laid off from her post at a health insurer in Chicago. The one-time manager took clerical jobs at $8.50 an hour despite her master’s degree and supervisory experience.

“The upside is that you are always increasing your skill base,” she says. “Everywhere you go, you make yourself more marketable.”

Davis says that through temping she never missed a mortgage payment and recently accepted a full-time job with a property management firm. Her wages are nearly $14 an hour, “and they’re going to pay for me to go to school and get a real-estate license,” she says.

6. Take advantage of training. While agency clients expect a basic skill set from their temps, such as meeting work schedules and deadlines and taking instructions from supervisors, most offer some sort of training. You might get a chance to learn a new database, the latest accounting software or how to operate state-of-the-art machinery.

Aside from on-the-job training, many agencies’ Web sites offer free access to online learning modules, newsletters and seminars in topics such as leadership, communication and common business software applications.

7. Make the most of perks. Depending on your tenure, some of the larger agencies offer medical benefits, paid vacation, 401(k) savings plans, workers’ compensation coverage and other benefits. The agency administers your paycheck, so you won’t have to chase down payment from the client.

Some in-demand professionals can use temping to enhance their lifestyle by opting for short-term, varied assignments, or even overseas and traveling jobs.

8. Register with multiple agencies. It’s not taboo to be working with several placement firms. “It’s understood that (it) happens. Like applying for any job, you circulate your credentials and hope for an assignment,” Berchem says.

But don’t keep agencies guessing. If you’ve accepted a post through one, let the others know and tell them when you expect to become available again. It doesn’t hurt to send a reminder a few weeks before one assignment ends, so you’ll be placed back in the pipeline quickly.

Sometimes an assignment is a good fit from both sides, and the company recognizes it.

“You can prove yourself with a client and they’ll say, ‘We have to find this person a spot in our organization,'” says Mack. “When the economy turns around, all companies are going to be scrambling for talent.”

Some 6,000 temporary staffing firms nationwide fill more than 11 million jobs a year, analysts say. The agencies range from global giants with many business units like Kelly Services Inc. and Manpower Inc. to local niche firms that serve a single industry sector or even a single client. Whether you’re looking for an immediate job as an unskilled laborer or an overseas assignment as an emergency room nurse, there’s likely an agency that suits your talents.

To start with a detailed list of staffing firms in your area, check the American Staffing Association’s state chapter directory.

Many services operate Web sites with helpful career information and links to other resources in addition to online application materials and job postings. Here’s a sampling of national and international staffing companies and their main specialties:

Accountemps
Locations: 360 worldwide

Specialties: financial, accounting, credit and collections

Web site: www.accountemps.com

Aerotek
Locations: 150 worldwide

Specialties: engineering, aviation, scientific and architecture

Web site: www.aerotek.com

CLP Resources
Locations: 64 nationwide

Specialties: construction and skilled trades

Web site: www.clp.com

Kelly Services
Locations: 2,000 nationwide

Specialties: professional services, law, health care, technical and administrative

Web site: www.kellyservices.com

Labor Ready
Locations: 600 nationwide

Specialty: general day labor

Web site: www.laborready.com

Manpower
Locations: 4,200 worldwide

Specialties: professional services, technical, finance, engineering and administrative

Web site: www.manpower.com

MarketSource
Locations: serves clients nationwide from headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga.

Specialties: sales and marketing

Web site: www.marketsource.com

MSX International
Locations: 13 worldwide

Specialty: automotive business solutions

Web site: www.msxi.com

On Assignment
Locations: 79 worldwide

Specialties: health care, travel nursing and engineering

Web site: www.onassignment.com

ProLogistix
Locations: 62 nationwide

Specialties: logistics and warehousing

Web site: www.prologistix.com

TEKsystems
Locations: 90 worldwide

Specialty: information technology

Web site: www.teksystems.com

TransForce
Locations: 31 nationwide

Specialty: commercial truck drivers

Web site: www.transforce.com

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