Tight economy makes trend for temporary workers soar

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 11, 2001

The role of the staffing agency may be growing in importance in the business and industrial worlds, workforce watchers say. In the Natchez area, agencies find local economic trends following national ones, with many companies calling for temporary workers due to downsizing and insecurity about the future.

The American Staffing Association released figures last week showing a 4 percent increase in temporary workers from 1999 to 2000.

A spokesman for the association cited uncertainty about the economy, a shortage of skilled workers with the unemployment rate at 4.2 percent and cost cutting by companies getting leaner as causes for the rise.

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Gina Buckley of Westaff of Natchez and Vidalia, La., said she has seen similar trends locally.

&uot;Due to typical downsizing taking place right now because of the economy slowing down and due to cutbacks in the workforce, a lot of companies are calling for temporary workers,&uot; she said.

On the other hand, some increases in calls for temps have come from companies involved in upgrading their businesses, Buckley said.

&uot;Right now we’re working with Wal-Mart in their renovation project; it’s a two-month project, and they like the fact that we offer background checks and a screening process.&uot;

About 90 people placed by Westaff are employed in the Wal-Mart project now, she said. They include stocking clerks, carpenters and construction clean-up crews.

The staffing agency role

There is no typical temporary worker, Buckley said, adding that the temporary placements are only about 20 percent of the agency’s clients.

&uot;We take anyone with any kind of working experience, and we never know what call may come on any day,&uot; she said. &uot;We’ve placed workers with minimal experience to those with engineering degrees. The person does have to be 18 and has to have some kind of work experience, even if it is babysitting or yard work.&uot;

Applicants at the agency fill out forms with details about their work backgrounds. Those go on file until the agency gets a request that fits.

&uot;As soon as we get a job order we fill it with the best qualified people,&uot; she said.

Mary Lou Laird of Southern Employer Inc. in Natchez said her agency works in the same way.

&uot;We keep the applications on file and try to match them to the best jobs,&uot; Laird said. &uot;I don’t guarantee a job, of course, and I tell people not to depend only on me.&uot;

Westaff has seen 6,000 people during the past seven years, Buckley said, and the company has put at least that many to work.

&uot;There are no signed contracts,&uot; she said. &uot;We act as a screening device for individuals as well as for the company.&uot;

Laird said businesses and the new employees benefit from the agency’s role. &uot;Both parties get a chance to assess the situation,&uot; she said.

Buckley agreed. &uot;It’s free to the individual; it’s the business who pays the placement fee,&uot; she said.

&uot;I encourage people to take the temporary position to see how they like it. Sometimes it works into something permanent.&uot;

Temp-to-permanent trend

Edward A. Lenz, senior vice president and general counsel for the American Staffing Association, said in a published paper on the group’s Web site that &uot;about 55 percent of temporary employees use temporary work as a bridge to permanent employment.&uot;

Lenz said the people who use staffing agencies fall into several categories.

&uot;Individuals looking for their first job, re-entering the labor force after an absence, looking for work after being laid off, transitioning from welfare to work or simply quitting their current job with the expectation of finding a better one, all use temporary work to get new experience and showcase their skills to potential new employees,&uot; Lenz said.

Buckley and Laird agreed with that assessment, both saying that the profile of an average worker seeking the staffing agency’s help will run the gamut.

&uot;Sometimes it’s a mother with small children who wants to work only a few hours,&uot; Buckley said.

&uot;I have people who haven’t worked in a long time who just want to come as needed.&uot;

Not everyone is looking for full-time work. But for those who are looking for permanence, the opportunities are there, she said.

In fact, Laird said she sees more people who start out as temporary workers do find permanent job offers with the company.

&uot;Sometimes the businesses decide they really like the temp and need them so much that they create the permanent position for them,&uot; Laird said.