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As Competition Grows, More Employers Using Temporary Workers

July 07, 1987|JEFF ROWE | Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

To potential employers, Bill Heaton of Orange has just two rather unusual stipulations: He won't wear a tie and won't keep regular hours.

Demands such as that are enough to make even a benevolent employer blanch. But Heaton is an independent computer systems analyst, designer and debugger, and he typically works for several companies at one time--none of which seems to be troubled by his requirements.

Heaton has been operating on his own for five years and says he thrives on the freedom and independence: "It allows me to work a variety of technically challenging jobs . . . to move around. The things that would get me fired as an employee are the same qualities that are sought after in consultants."

A decade ago, independents like Heaton were rare, but today he is part of a sweeping trend in business and industry--the increasing use of temporary workers in just about every field.

Whether they are called free-lancers, consultants, temporaries, contingency workers, contract workers, independents or disposable employees, there are more of them than ever before and their numbers seem likely to swell in the 1990s.

Seen as Necessities

"You have to have them," says Vic Barruga, employment specialist with Newport Beach-based Far West Savings & Loan Assn.

But even as their numbers are growing, the use of temporary and independent workers is raising ethical questions about the responsibilities of employers. And government officials are concerned about a potential drop in payroll tax revenues.

Certain industries such as farming and food processing, construction, retailing and other service businesses have by the nature of their work always used large numbers of temporary workers.

Now the ranks of disposable workers are swelling with accountants, engineers, medical personnel, nuclear maintenance specialists, airline employees, lawyers, manufacturing workers and even government workers.

Their numbers are growing for three primary reasons: the restructuring of U.S. business to meet increased competition, an expansion of laws that protect and provide benefits for permanent workers and rapid technological change that renders some job tasks obsolete while creating new ones.

To remain competitive, U.S. companies have been forced to get the most from their work force, and temporaries can be brought in for specific tasks only when needed.

Competition Cited

The increased use of independents "is related very much to the restructuring of manufacturing companies and corporations in general," says Jim Doti, dean of the School of Business and Management at Chapman College in Orange.

In particular, he says, it reflects the "tremendous global competition" U.S. companies face.

While business has become more competitive, it also has become more complex, and today's useful skill could be eclipsed by tomorrow's technology. At the same time, the narrowing of some skills has created opportunities for independent specialists to service a number of companies, rather than each company maintaining a specialist that it perhaps could not fully use.

Archive Corp., a Costa Mesa-based maker of memory units for computers, says it has increased its use of temporaries to give it greater flexibility in the volatile computer business.

"Life is becoming tremendously complicated," says Larry Ball, Tustin-based regional manager for the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., a statewide nonprofit group that claims 800 member companies. "A company must be able to handle peaks and valleys."

Huntington Beach-based Mercury Savings and Loan Assn. has been using more temporaries in recent years to handle the additional staff needs brought on by rapid growth. "We hire temps to fill in gaps," says Rowena Chan, a compensation analyst with the company. "It's effective because it is very quick."

Plus, Ball says, "a whole set of new legislation has made it extremely difficult to hire and fire. (Using) temporary workers avoids that."

Recession Brought Changes

For many companies, the recession of the early 1980s brought all these factors sharply into focus. Skittish about taking on regular, full-time employees, many employers opted instead to meet their staffing needs with temporary workers of every stripe, thus avoiding the possible trauma of furloughs and the high costs of severance pay.

When the nation began pulling out of the recession in 1983, many employers kept their networks of temporaries and independents, preferring to remain "leaner and meaner," Doti says.

"We use temporaries for overload situations," says Scott Rayburn, a spokesman for Hughes Aircraft Co., which employs 14,000 workers at its Ground Systems Group in Fullerton.

Overlaying the increased competition and changing skill demands has been a growing legal presence in the personnel department.

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