Temping as a Bridge
In 1979, I went through a radical career change. English teacher by day and cabaret musician by night, I really wanted to be a Wall Street human resources professional (surely that kind of transformation counts as radical!). I decided temping might be a good a way to survive and create a financial bridge. In those days, temping usually meant something clerical. Fortunately, like many pianists, I also was a fast and accurate typist and easily secured a position in the word processing department of a major magazine. The experience was not especially challenging or intellectual, but did start me thinking about using temporary work as a conduit to advancing in any environment. Much later, I also found myself in a position to hire temporary workers, so I have observed temping as both employee and employer.
As I learned, there are some hurdles to clear before one becomes comfortable with the idea of temping. First, I had to deal with certain "pride" issues: I wasn't "only" a secretary and didn't want to be perceived as one. Second, why wasn't I doing what I was supposedly trained to do? All those degrees! Third, how would I explain this to my friends and my new colleagues? And perhaps worst, why didn't I know exactly what my next career move was?
Considerations While on a Temp Job
Over time, I realized the best way to deal with these issues is to be patient and to establish good relationships with coworkers. It isn't necessary to trumpet who you "really" are or infer you are overqualified for the temp position. Coworkers will discover your capabilities sooner or later if you work well in the position and build relationships.
After a time, when someone expresses interest and relationships have developed, it is perfectly acceptable to say that you're in a transition, that you're researching ways better to use your skills and background, that it might take some time--and that, meanwhile, you are exploring this area while making your decision. Let people know that you've planned to take time for this research. This will create the impression that you're making a serious, deliberate effort to make an intelligent decision. What could be bad about that?
With this in mind, it is not a good idea to make statements such as "I'm not really a clerical worker; I'm a lawyer on a job search . . . ." Right away, this creates the perception that one is unhappy and feels above such a mundane position. Instead of relationships, you are creating walls. Also, it might be helpful to drop assumptions of class and ego, and pick up information from new angles!
My job at the magazine was not in an area of career interest, but I was an "information junkie," asked lots of questions and met many of the professional staff. I offered to help my bosses create a better record-keeping system and wrote long memos (the job wasn't particularly demanding, so I had plenty of time) detailing how they could improve something or other. My bosses were both pleased with the suggestions, and they obviously spoke with someone else in the office, who mentioned that there was a copywriter position opening up--would I be interested? No, I've never really enjoyed writing, but for practice I interviewed for the position and received an offer! This experience proved to me the value of building networks and asking questions, even when the subject was not a target area.~
Not all of my temping situations were as satisfying as that one. I have been treated with condescension--a woman with whom I worked for two weeks never remembered my name; another position was with an enormously wealthy nonprofit religious organization in which co-workers spent much time proselytizing. Still on most of these assignments, I did pick up some useful new information or skill.
In the late 1980s a new form of temping evolved. Executive temping provided alternative career paths for displaced middle and senior corporate managers.
Today, many of my clients have used executive temp firms. In fact, the industry has grown so large that there is even a directory, published by Kennedy Publications. Generally, executive temp firms can provide access even to very senior positions and many can even be a conduit to a permanent situation. How to make this happen? The same rules I described above apply even at the senior level along with some more sophisticated considerations discussed below.
And then there is that other form of temping known as consulting. This trend grew significantly in the late 1980s, likely a result of the 1987 stock market crash and its ensuing displacements. There are enticing advantages: independence, variety, autonomy. There are some disturbing disadvantages: finding appropriate clients, marketing oneself, time allotment, tedious administrative work, absence of benefits and irregular paychecks.
Certainly, many consultants overcome these concerns successfully, but just as many don't. Some realize that they really do want the regularity and structure of an organization around them. So their issues become the same as the temporary clerical worker, the executive temporary worker, the accountant filling in for three months, or anyone wanting to make the temporary situation permanent.~
Temporary jobs create their own unique pressures and require extra care in interaction with permanent staff. Behaviors which might be acceptable in a regular full-time job may be inappropriate in a temporary situation. A few years ago, while working in a large international outplacement/human resources consulting firm, we hired "adjuncts" or temporaries occasionally to accommodate frequently shifting client loads--a common practice in most such firms. We hired "Alice" as an adjunct on good recommendation.
She was barely past introductions to the staff when she asked me if we could spend some time together. She had heard I knew "lots" of people in the New York area career consulting field and would I help her out? This after about one minute of being acquainted. This inappropriate familiarity and pushiness continued throughout her assignment. She wanted me and other staff to be available to her for career consulting. She demonstrated complete insensitivity to our time needs and misunderstanding of basic career development methodology. She made it worse with incessant requests for help in gathering materials, information about subjects she should have known about and an increasing need for support in her daily duties. The irony of this, of course, was that we had hired her to alleviate our own workloads. In short, Alice the Adjunct, despite some good work with clients, was a major irritant to permanent staff and we did not hire her again.
A brief coda to this story: When Alice landed a position with a prestigious firm, she wrote to me of her good news and to thank me for my assistance. But her letter had a distinct "form" feel to it. Sure enough, my manager, who had not been involved with Alice, received an identical letter. So, the lack of sensitivity we saw earlier was confirmed as a character trait. A cardinal rule of follow-up mailing is: ensure that the letter at least will make sense to the recipient and add a hand-written note apologizing for the need for a form letter and articulating special thanks.~
This use of adjuncts, who may become permanent temps, contract employees or even permanent staff has become known as the "try and buy" technique and is becoming more prevalent in all forms of temping. For example, I have an acquaintance who recently took a permanent position with a major corporation. I was surprised me because he had been a successful consultant and had enjoyed the independence and freedom to travel. He had been a consultant to the corporation, enjoyed it and found himself in the try and buy situation. With good chemistry and excellent skills, he built a good relationship with the department manager. Eventually, the manager approached him with an offer--acknowledging his value of independence and flexibility, but hoping they could work out an arrangement. She assured him the company stressed good balance in employees' lives more than long hours. He has been there for a year, loves the job, and feels he has the best possible situation. What made this possible, of course, was the try and buy aspect combined with his relationship-building skills.
So What Are the Rules?
Given these experiences in temping, some "rules" become clear:
- Realize you're in the spotlight. You are "on trial" with more pressure to be "on." People are judging you--whether you'd be a good employee, should be extended or hired again. Temping may mean a strict schedule and flawless punctuality. If paid by the hour, day or assignment the situation is more tenuous than being a regular employee--even a personal phone call might be inadvisable.
- Do more than expected. Assume initiative, be a self-starter. Taking on other responsibilities will give you an opportunity to show more skills.
Be self-sufficient. You have been contracted because of a skillset, workflow or growth need. You take away valuable time from other staff if you need frequent help and attention. Use staff resources certainly and ask questions when necessary, but try to be independent.
- Build relationships. Especially keep the person who hired you informed of everything you've accomplished--a basic political skill--and maintain the connection. Establish connections with others in the organization. Talk with everyone you can, making lunch hour an important part of your business day. Relationship-building is an imperative political skill.~
- Ask meaningful questions. Find out about the company, the business, the industry. Everyone knows something interesting and useful to you. Generally, people like to be questioned about their skills and work-- it implies they have valuable expertise.
- Keep an open mind. This goes for most job search strategy, but is especially important in temping. Don't make judgments too quickly. Even if the company or industry is obviously of no interest to you, there may be some skill to be learned or information to be gained. The job may also provide a needed credential.
These temporary, consulting, try and buy and executive temp positions can be a useful bridge between permanent positions and even a valuable addition to a long-term "campaign." Your ability to handle these situations appropriately and intelligently can provide a distinct advantage in today's fast-moving and fluid job market.
Ellis Chase is an original Five O'Clock Club counselor, has directed a branch and currently is affiliated with the Manhattan Central branch. He is a management and career consultant in private practice in New York City.
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