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THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET: LOOKING FOR LIGHT : 'Temping' It : Companies See the Flexibility as a Competitive Edge

September 20, 1993|Pradnya Joshi | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lucienne Cahill is the type of employee Corporate America seems to be looking for these days.

Cahill is employed by Kelly Temporary Services, which sends her to companies on little notice when they need someone to fill in. The companies get an able worker without having to worry about vacation, sick leave and other benefits. The 63-year-old Cahill gets a job with the kind of flexibility she craves.

"Sometimes I might work seven days in a row and sometimes I would go two weeks without a call, and that's fine with me," said the Los Angeles resident, who has worked on such a schedule with Kelly for more than four years. "I like the freedom of working or the freedom of not working."

With an economic recovery so anemic that it hardly feels like a recovery at all, many companies are leery of adding permanent workers and are turning to "temps" and the agencies that specialize in them.

Although most employees hope to trade loyalty and hard work for some measure of certainty in their lives, "the cradle-to-grave syndrome is dead," said Bruce Steinberg, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Temporary Services. "Companies must be flexible in their staffing in order to compete on a worldwide basis."

Employees must now depend on their own talents rather than company loyalty, Steinberg said, adding that "job security will be replaced by skills security."

To some, that idea is an ominous one.

Critics contend that only an elite group of professionals, executives, consultants and academics will be able to repeatedly remake their careers.

What's more, the recession has swelled the ranks of temps who would much rather be working in permanent jobs. Many of these are temporary workers unaffiliated with an agency such as Kelly, and they often lack many of the basic benefits they used to count on.

In 1992 alone, the temporary-help industry grew by about 20% in both payroll and employees, with the fastest growth among agencies focusing on professionals, such as accountants and doctors, or specialized niches, such as lab technicians and lawyers. Since 1981, the industry has grown 380% in terms of payroll and 236% in the number of employees.

Some temporary agencies report that more companies are using them as an avenue to hire permanent workers. The National Assn. of Temporary Services says about 20% to 40% of temporary positions are being converted to permanent ones.

"Companies recognize that it's a great source to bring on people" permanently, said Richard Lewis, president and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Accountants Overload. A company can try out one or several employees before making the commitment to hire, and the employee can experience the atmosphere of the company firsthand, he said.

Carol Moore is a temp who has landed full-time jobs that began as temporary assignments.

After taking time out to have a baby, Moore re-entered the work force in 1984 by signing up with Manpower Inc., the nation's largest temporary agency. That turned into a full-time job as a clerk--until the company relocated.

Moore returned to temping, eventually landing a full-time job with McDonnell Douglas. But she was one of thousands who got pink slips when the company made cutbacks, and she is again taking temporary assignments, hoping to land another full-time position.

"I rely on (Manpower) because sooner or later I'll fall into an assignment that will turn permanent," said Moore, of Bellflower. Her salary as a temporary meets her needs, she said, although she has done much better in her permanent positions.

Moore has other health insurance, but Manpower, like some temporary agencies, offers benefits to employees who work a certain number of hours a year.

Manpower provides subsidized health insurance and holiday and vacation pay after 400 hours of work. Kelly offers employee-paid health insurance and provides holiday pay after 1,200 hours of work, plus vacation pay for those who work 1,500 hours in a year.

Workers for Mactemps, which specializes in computer personnel, are eligible for various stages of employee benefits--depending on how many hours they have worked in a year--including holiday and vacation pay, a 401(k) retirement package, dental and disability insurance and company-paid or partially subsidized health insurance.

While the temporary business is booming even in Southern California, salaries are not. For example, hourly rates for a word-processing typist through Manpower range between $10 and $14, down from the $13-to-$15 range of a few years ago, said Hank Hinse, area manager for Manpower's 14 offices in Los Angeles and Kern counties.

"We are in a situation where (temporaries) are not as picky anymore," Hinse said. "It's not that we're taking advantage of them, but the customer is not willing to pay that much."

Officials at temporary agencies say skills ranging from typing to knowledge of computer programs help employees get more and better-paying assignments. Many of the temp companies also offer their employees free training on computer software.

Perhaps the most important skill is the ability to deal with assignments that are not always predictable.

Said Kelly employee Cahill: "You have to be flexible, because if you're not, you might be disappointed."

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