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New employment data on market’s temp staffing scene

April 30, 2014

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Temporary staffing is one jobs story worth revisiting, as we look toward Friday’s update on the employment situation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Spanning just about every occupation from unskilled day laborer to emergency-room physician, the temporary workforce represents a relatively large segment of the labor pool in the United States and it’s growing.  The line item reflecting the number of workers at temporary help services was nearly 2.84 million in March, up from about 2.45 in the same month of 2013, on Table B-1 of the Employment Situation report.  About 29,000 temp jobs were added in March compared to February levels.

The American Staffing Association, an industry group, said temporary employment grew 4 percent in 2013, according to its quarterly survey.  (You can review data back to 1992 here; the recent growth level is not unprecedented, particularly after a recession when employers are reluctant to add people permanently to their rolls.)

Some analysts lament that trend, citing it as another sign of loss of security for the American employee. Others see it as a positive, offering flexibility and autonomy to workers who may want to be free to lean in and out of careers due to family demands, or who want to travel or otherwise earn a non-traditional livelihood.  Most analyses and surveys of the so-called “contingent workforce,” (which also sometimes includes freelancers and independent contractors) seem to have been commissioned by industry members, so as you can imagine tend to have an upbeat spin.

Either way, try to localize and make sense of the temp worker numbers that come out on Friday by talking to your area’s larger employers about their use of staffing firms.  They probably won’t be champing at the bit to share numbers, but you might try getting information from unions first; another way to find out who’s using temps is to go to the sites of the major players like Kelly, Manpower and see what’s listed.  Many have ZIP-code driven search engines and you can nose around by keyword as well if you’re limiting your report to a specific beat or industry.

A quickie search in my ZIP revealed jobs for a pesticide sprayer, voice recognition specialist, administrative assistant, lots of IT jobs and a surprising number of posts at automotive suppliers. Look for trends and patterns among jobs in your area.  Even when the employer ID is cloaked, it’s sometimes possible to guess; I have a pretty good idea which “automaker in Dearborn, Mich.” is using a temp agency to find a technical writer, for example.  That may be one way to identify temp jobs at companies you cover.

Remember that at some companies, it’s not just a job here and there that is filled by temps – some companies staff entire units, like call centers or distribution warehouses, through firms like Kelly and Manpower.

long-term unemployment

Also be aware that many niche staffing agencies are out there; they specialize in occupations from sales & marketing to architecture to construction to health care.  Here’s a “2014 Best of Staffing” roster that includes some interesting-sounding firms – like PsychPros Inc. for behavioral healthcare professionals and Aerotek, which does aviation, energy and science staffing among others.  In addition to profiling a variety of temp jobs your readers may not be aware – including benefits, wages and so on – keep in mind that some of these specialized staffing firms can be interesting stories in themselves.

Here’s a report from EMSI, a CareerBuilder company, that offers a couple of items of interest:  One, it notes that permanent job offers to temps are way down, by even Manpower’s admission – meaning temping isn’t the path to a full-time gig that it once was.  That’s a metric to ask about when you talk with area employers and temp workers.

Two, EMSI article offers a nice grid of major metro area growth in temp jobs 2009-2013; you might check to see if your market is reflected.

Staffing Industry Analysts is a consulting firm that compiles a lot of research and data; I have found them to be helpful in the past for information and commentary.

Be sure to check out this recent ProPublica report, “U.S. lags behind the world in temp protections.”  It documents problems with working conditions and also notes that the “perma-temping” trend has not been followed by the kind of worker-friendly laws that exist in other countries, such as those that force employers to limit the length of temp positions.

An upcoming American Staffing Association legal conference will take place in May; you can skim the agenda here to get an idea of issues of concern to the industry, like ACA compliance and equal opportunity employment.


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