Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Jobs beat: The outlook at temporary staffing agencies

June 20, 2012

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The temporary staffing industry offers a variety of story ideas to dive into. Photo by Dreamstime.

Looking for a new way to tackle the jobs story? Try a fresh look at the temporary employment market in your region.

I find the temporary staffing industry fascinating on a number of levels.  It’s a source of quirky jobs stories, with staffing agencies providing employees for jobs ranging from substitute teachers to emergency room doctors to the people who hand out food samples in grocery stores.  The industry also is considered a bellwether of the jobs outlook as would-be employers dip their toe in by hiring temps before committing to full-time employees.  And it’s an interesting industry in and of itself; temporary agencies have come a long way from the “Kelly girl” days and now operate sophisticated value-added operations for clients in all sectors.

The recruiting, hiring and training of workers from day laborers to highly skilled IT experts has spawned niche agencies and made powerhouses of the larger firms like Manpower Inc. and Kelly Services.  Indeed, Manpower is just out with a widely watched (PDF)  global employer survey that shows an uptick in employment outlook this quarter.

Start by interviewing the owners or general managers of independent or regional agencies in your market. Ask what they are hearing from clients, what patterns they see in client requests and what level of workers are presenting themselves for temporary work.  The American Staffing Association is the industry trade group and a good source of statistics (sign up for their e-mailed press releases). You can plug in your state or ZIP code and obtain a list of agencies from which to choose.  The search engine will tailor your results to a specific category like health care if you’re confining the story to one or two beats.

You might even consider alternative storytelling, like a round-up of quotes from temp managers about the local economy, or a panel discussion/Q&A.  Don’t forget to talk with some of their clients about the pros and cons of hiring temps.

Readers will want to know what it’s like to work as a temporary staffer.  What are the prerequisites to employment, how do you enroll with agencies, can you work for more than one and how much say do you have in your assignments?  I could envision a “So you want to try temp work?” personal finance or career package in the form of a road map, with lots of easy-to-digest elements about these topics and more, including training opportunities through the agencies, benefits (some do let temp accrue paid vacation and other perks) and the protocol of temp-to-hire jobs.

While some people turn to temping as a stop-gap (this might be an angle for the jobless college grad story), others choose it as a lifestyle.  There even are specialty agencies for traveling nurses, for example, who like to migrate around the country on short stints.  Construction workers, engineers, even sales and marketing reps have their own specialty temp agencies from which to choose, too.

You might ask the agencies which jobs are most difficult or challenging to fill, and how prospective candidates could tap into that.  Temp agencies are notoriously mum about the wages they pay, but ask anyway.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics employment situation report offers monthly data on the number of people employed by these establishments. And don’t miss this relatively recent BLS publication on the expanding role of temp staffing.

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