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Temporary Jobs Are Way to Get Your Foot in the Door

Working as a temp offers a chance to gain experience and maybe qualify for a full-time job.


On paper, Zachary Salzmann wouldn't have impressed a potential boss. Sure, he had a newly earned college degree in business and accounting, but his job experience was nothing to brag about.

As a student at UC Santa Barbara, he earned cash during summers doing "typical temp work"--sweeping floors at a construction site, assembling parts at an auto plant, sorting mail at a discount food warehouse.

"It was kind of pathetic," he said.

Throw in his shaky interview skills and his chance of landing a good job in the highly competitive accounting field seemed slim to none. So how did this 22-year-old rookie wind up with his dream job at KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the country's venerable Big Six public accounting firms?

More temp work.

The Marina del Rey resident is one of many fresh-out-of-school job seekers who have learned that temp work has changed. Grads today turn to temporary employment services to find them jobs that not only pay the bills but beef up scrawny resumes, establish contacts and, not uncommonly, lead to regular full-time employment.

As corporate downsizing has thinned the ranks of well-paid, secure jobs with traditional benefits, companies have come to use temporary workers to manage fluctuating staff needs while keeping fixed costs down. The number of temp workers in the U.S. nearly doubled from 1990 to 1995, from 1.2 million to about 2 million, according to industry figures.

Temp work is no longer limited to unskilled labor or a stint at the desk of a vacationing receptionist, although there's still plenty of that. Today temp firms place accountants, engineers, lab techs, health-care workers, technical writers, graphic artists, lawyers and, especially, information systems techies.

"The industry has grown in depth and breadth," said Bruce Steinberg, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Assn. of Temporary Services. "The increase in professional temp work is one of the more notable trends."

One of the biggest changes in the $28-billion-a-year industry is the growth of specialty agencies or divisions within an agency.

These cater to specific industries, such as high-tech, accounting and finance, scientific, legal and entertainment fields. There's even MacTemps, an international firm that places Macintosh experts.

For new grads, this can mean an alternate route into a tight job market where employers are more willing to give a chance to a promising greenhorn on a temporary, no-risk basis. Insiders call it "try before you buy."

About 38% of all temp jobs lead to permanent positions, according to one industry survey. "Temp-to-perm," as the industry calls it.

That's what happened to Salzmann. After graduating in December 1994, he sent a flurry of resumes to the 50 biggest U.S. accounting firms. "It's not quite as easy as you might imagine to get a job, even in accounting," he said.

By January of this year, when he came to Los Angeles-based Accountants Overload, he was desperate. He sweated through the interview, but aced the accounting exam.

Such skills tests are standard at temp services. Many offer training in an array of computer programs to help applicants qualify for jobs. Most help applicants polish their resumes.

Salzmann's final resume draft downplayed his menial jobs and emphasized his accounting courses and volunteer work preparing tax returns for international students and the elderly.

It worked. It was tax season and KPMG needed temps. Once crunch time was over, his boss, Anita Lee, decided he was a keeper and offered him a job.

"It's probably an opportunity he wouldn't have had if he hadn't gone through the temp firm," said Lee, a tax compliance manager.

Increasingly, temp services target college placement centers as a source of entry-level workers with up-to-the-minute computer skills and a will to work.

"College grads are great for our business because of their attitudes," said Jennifer Roh, manager of the Mid-Wilshire branch of Accountants on Call. "They're fresh out of school and understand they don't have any real skills, so they're willing to do anything to fill that position. They're open-minded, eager and ready to prove themselves."

Many college placement counselors also have come to regard temporary work as a viable entree into the working world. "It's something our members--both employers and career services practitioners--recommend," said Claudia Allen, a spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers. "It's a way for the new graduate to gain practical work experience in a variety of environments, develop their skills and get references for their work habits."

Twenty-five companies recently showed up at UCLA's second annual temp jobs fair.

"The positions these companies were recruiting for were not your typical clerical jobs," said Joyce Haraughty, marketing manager for the UCLA Career Center. "There are some really good opportunities out there." Several other area colleges said they are considering holding similar temporary-job fairs.

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