Temp work is the new normal.
Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics told us how bad the job market was in September. The economy shed 95,000 jobs, many of which were temporary Census jobs that we expected to lose all along. But local governments, which are struggling to balance their budgets, also shed 76,000 people.
In a few months, we’ll probably move to positive job growth, but even that doesn’t necessarily mean the unemployment rate—which now stands at 9.6%—will drop. Every year, about a million new adults enter the workforce as students graduate and immigrants start looking. That doesn’t even count the discouraged workers who’ve temporarily given up looking and might try again as the jobs picture looks better.
The bottom line is that the economy needs to add 100,000 to 125,000 jobs per month just to keep the unemployment rate even. Anything less than that, and the unemployment rate will go up, despite jobs being added.
Even in the best-case scenario, where job growth hits the high rate it did in the late 1990s (about 200k per month), it would take until the year 2017 before we got back to the 5% unemployment rate we enjoyed before the recession. Of course, very few economists expect jobs to grow nearly that fast.
Instead, employers are stocking up on part-time, temporary, and contract workers. They’re less risky to employ, while the economy still looks shaky. In fact, employers have added temp jobs for 11 of the last 12 months. Normally, employers convert temps to full-timers after just a few months of adding temps. This time, it’s taking much longer.
What does that mean? For the next decade or so, if you lose a job, there’s an exceedingly high chance you’ll have to take temp work. So the ability to transform your temp position to a full-time job becomes more crucial than ever.
If you have a choice, stick with jobs that have the possibility of conversion.
There are three major reasons an employer will hire a temporary worker. It can be a seasonal job, like the 45,000 workers Toys ‘R Us says it will hire for the holidays. It can be a special project that disappears after the job is done. Or, the sweet spot, it can simply be a full-time job in waiting.
In 2003, as the short post-dot-com bubble ended, temp employment increased for three months before full-time hiring started again. In the early 1990s recession, temp hiring only led full-time hiring by a month or two.
This time around, more temp jobs continue to be added, but full-time jobs haven’t followed suit, leading some economists to believe that the shift to temp workers might last longer.
So step one in finding a temp-to-fulltime job is to home in on those jobs that at least have a possibility to convert to a full-time position. You’ll often see the possibility listed right in the job ad, but if you’re working with a staffing firm, they’ll also have an idea or even hard statistics on how often the employer converts their temps to full-timers.
Make known your desire to be hired full-time.
This might seem crazy to some of you, but a lot of temp workers like being temp workers. Even high-paid professionals, like computer engineers and lawyers, sometimes choose to take temporary or contract projects rather than be tied down in a permanent position.
When you start, you need to immediately establish yourself as not one of those people. I spoke to someone earlier this year who was working as a temp administrative assistant for a bank. She didn’t realize that full-time admin positions had opened up in her office until she was asked to start scheduling interviews for other job candidates. Imagine how demoralizing that felt. She thought her employer wasn’t happy with her work. The real problem? They didn’t know she wanted the full-time job. (She asked to be interviewed for it and was converted to full-time.)
Of course, the easiest way is just to tell your boss when you’re hired that you’d like to be considered for full-time work if something opens up. Better yet, ask what you can do to make yourself a top candidate. Your audition will go much better when you know what to strive for.
Act like a full-time employee.
And, of course, outperform the real full-time employees.
Your employer likely knows he’s taking advantage of a soft job market to hire temps who would otherwise take full-time gigs. So even though you don’t get the same benefits as the suit sitting the next cubicle over, you’ll probably get the same kind of work with the same kind of expectations.
Up until now, I’ve been using the word “temp” when I’m really meaning to include contractors in the same bucket. Temps are typically placed through a staffing agency, whereas contractors find the job independently and have to deal with their own taxes and insurance issues.
Either way, there are certain freedoms that temps and contractors can enjoy that full-time workers can’t. For example, you’re not supposed to tell a contractor what to wear or to dictate their schedules strictly, according to federal law.
But as someone striving for a full-time position, you’ve got to act as if you’re a full-time employee anyway. Go to the company picnic (if invited, of course). Socialize with full-time coworkers and bosses, rather than with the other temps, which will be tempting, since you’re the new people. Keep the same hours as the full-time workers, even if you don’t have to.
Get the timing right for the talk.
As long as the job market is weak, employers will have a plethora of temp workers available to them to fill roles that they would otherwise need to hire full-time workers for. You need to become so valuable that, when faced with the threat of your departure, your employer would rather hire you full-time than risk hiring another temp.
If you came to your employer through an agency, your workplace might actually have to pay a 10% to 30% fee for converting you to full-time. This might seem like a deal breaker, until you consider that filtering thousands of applications and having other employees work overtime while a position is empty is also a burden.
Still, a $60,000 per year employee has to get over a $6,000 or so hump to be considered for the conversion. The harder you are to replace, the better the chance you’ll have for a “yes.”
Anyway, I know some of that boils down to common sense. Be good at your job. But if you’re lucky enough to be employed now, start thinking about what you would do if faced with a temporary or contract position.