career

8 ways to find and keep a temporary job

Smart Spending
Highlights
  • With agencies specializing in certain jobs, target the right agency.
  • A temporary job is not just a paycheck. It may lead to full-time work.
  • While you're temping, take advantage of training and other perks.

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.

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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.

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