Thursday, August 04, 2016

Temporary insanity

A few weeks back, there was an interesting piece in The Economist on temp work, which in the US is how more than 2% of the overall workforce – that’s 2.9 million people – earn their living.

For a couple of years in my twenties, I was a temp.

While the work was mostly boring - whatever it was, it generally beat waitressing – I did get exposure to quite the range of work environments. A blue jean factory. An architectural firm run by a cousin of Nelson Rockefeller. Oxfam America’s Boston office. The insurance company where I typed the letter B on forms all day.

Most of the people I met were nice. A couple I stayed friendly with for a while. One I ended up marrying. (He wasn’t a temp, by the way. He was a consultant. Having been both, there’s a big difference.)

Temping worked for me, but I have very mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, it means flexibility for those who don’t want to work full time, and a sometime job for those who may not otherwise be able to find a permanent position. It can also lead to something permanent. Something real.

On the other hand, most folks want would just as soon forego the temping and get right to the “permanence” (not that there is any such thing) of having regular work, along with the better pay and benefits that come with it. Not to mention that, even though there are no guarantees that your job will be permanent – raise your hand if you or your spouse has NEVER been laid off: lucky you! – if you at least have some stability, you can plan for things like home ownership and having kids. Then there’s the other good things that happen in a permanent job: making friends, being part of something, seeing what happens over time.

Anyway, what I wasn’t aware of is how the face of temping has changed since I was out there in the early 1970’s. Kelly Girling with my 60 w.p.m. and willingness to do anything office-y. These days:

According to the Census Bureau, temps today are disproportionately young, single and black or Hispanic. More than half are men. If the temps of the 1960s were relatively educated, today’s are more likely than permanent workers to be high-school dropouts. Just 8% of them have an advanced degree compared with 12% of permanent workers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all that, temps earn 20-25% less than their permanent counterparts. Even after controlling for demographic characteristics such as age and education, Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University, reckons temps face a 15% earnings penalty. In 1970 8% of temporary workers lived below the poverty line; in 2014 it was 15%. (Source: The Economist)

Fifteen percent below the poverty line. Ah. That’s where the taxpayers come in:

More than 26% of temps participate in at least one of these social safety-net programmes, compared with 14% of permanent workers.

Not that this taxpayer is not in favor of helping the working poor. In fact, I’m all for it. And for another in fact, at one point, when my roommate and I – fresh out of school and trying to figure out ‘what next’ once we’d already done the drive cross country and hostel across Europe bit – were working as temps, one (or was it both) of us applied for food stamps. It wasn’t for very long, but, boy, did we get the looks when we went grocery shopping. We’d get back to our apartment and put away our goods, laughing half from embarrassment and half from the sheer joy of having beaten the system. I still remember what those food stamps looked like. And if I recall correctly, they came in a little wallet not unlike the one that held the American Express Traveler’s Checks you used when you drove cross country and hosteled across Europe.

In any case, because we were educated, because we were middle class, because neither of us wanted to temp forever, we both ended up with decent careers. And it was while working at a temp job at the First National Bank of Boston that I met my future husband.

Surprisingly, there’s some evidence that “permanent employees who work alongside temps worry more about job security.”

I’d really have to drill down on that study, but it’s sure counterintuitive – and counter to my experience – that “permanent employees who work alongside temps worry more about job security.” But my experience was, of course, more than 40 years ago, before companies turned downsizing, outsourcing, and bringing temps in into a fine art. Maybe when you “work alongside temps” you’re getting a daily message that you, too, could just as easily become one of them.

I would also hazard the opinion that, in any society, while having opportunities for temp jobs can be a good thing, too much reliance on temping is pure insanity.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

My modest proposal - any company in the US which has workers filing for public assistance should automatically be charged the full cost of that assistance plus a penalty of 100%. What we're really doing is subsidizing their profits.