Computer consultant Bob Wagner promised himself a decade ago that he would spend part of every spring in Paris--and thanks to his job as a temporary executive, he has.
"I always said there are two great evils in life--being on a payroll or having one. I've succumbed to just one of those," Wagner said.
His employees "clean up" after Wagner has done the heavy lifting for a client in need of his special computer skills. Sometimes he calls in the reserves if several clients need him at once, and he usually takes his work with him to France in a laptop computer.
Either by choice or by force of corporate gutting of management ranks, many executives have joined the temporary-help movement, once a realm dominated by clerical workers and secretaries.
"People realize they're going to live their lives in chapters now, so, whatever reason, they go into this temporary work force while they're looking to start a new chapter," said John Stanek, who heads a Chicago labor consulting firm called International Survey Research Corp.
"It keeps the wolf away from the door. And of course, corporations like it," Stanek said.
According to Catalyst, a research organization, 3.5 million managers and professionals are among the 20 million Americans working part time.
Some temporary executives are restless retirees, others are career dropouts, some want to spend more time at home and others are victims of the corporate cost-cutting of the past decade, Stanek said.
Westpacific Search Group in Irvine specializes in placing top executives in the insurance and health care fields. Company President Glenn Burnett said his 3-year-old company placed about 30 executives last year in full-time jobs paying $40,000 to $250,000.
But increasingly, Burnett said, many Orange County executives are looking for part-time work.
"They like the fact that it is more results-driven and they don't have to play politics," he said. "These are older executives in their late 50s, and they enjoy running their own show."
Thomas Temporaries, another local temporary agency, has not yet started placing executives.
"If our clients come to us with a special request for an executive, we will jump through hoops, but we have no current placement plans," said Gene Wilson, president of Thomas Temporaries in Irvine.
Temporary workers represent 16% of the nation's work force, and the flexibility they provide dovetails with a corporate climate geared toward keeping down expenses.
On the down side, however, a part-time worker, or one who works full time for a set period of time, often gets limited or no health insurance or pension benefits. But even permanent employees are seeing those benefits trimmed by employers.
Another shortcoming of being temporary, especially at the executive level, is a difficulty exerting authority over subordinates.
"A lot of organizations don't know how to handle a rent-a-brain or a rent-an-executive," Stanek said. "It's easier to handle a brain, because you just stick him in a closet and let him out when he's finished. But an executive is almost like hiring an orchestra conductor."
Increasingly, companies are hiring executives temporarily to help roll out new products or deal with seasonal bulges in demand, according to Andrea Meltzer of Executive Options, a Chicago placement firm specializing in upper-level workers.
Temporary executives are paid, often handsomely, by the hour or by the project.
The trend seems to bear out Alvin Toffler's prediction in his 1970 book "Future Shock" that specialists from several fields would gather to complete a project and then disband.
"Being a temporary worker is addictive--they do feel sort of a 'gig' mentality about it," Stanek said. "They like the fact that they're going to be there to do a job, and then they're gone."
Wagner said that he grew fed up with the political maneuvering and infighting that poisoned his full-time jobs at large corporations, and found that switching employers improved his work life.
Currently working for a small but rapidly growing Chicago-based freight-handling firm and other clients, Wagner described himself as a "traveling corporate troubadour" with reams of experience to impart to new colleagues.
"Troubadours not only brought entertainment, they brought the news," he said.
Mary Diebert, who like Wagner relies on Executive Options, said she prefers the flexibility of part-time work despite offers for full-time positions.
"Some companies only have enough work for a part-time person," said Diebert, a human relations expert. Pregnant with twins, she said she will cut back her schedule when the babies are born this spring.