Brad Allen On the other hand
Even in a tough job market, some people who just can’t keep a job like it that way … because they keep getting hired.
Ask Anka Vela Shannon. Like millions of others, Shannon found herself out of work in 2008 as the global economy slid into recession. Just a few years out of college, she started taking temporary assignments to pay the bills and hopefully “get a foot in the door” on a path to a permanent position. Instead, she found that temporary assignments have become her career — at least for now. Over the last four years, she has had eight assignments including financial analyst, billing supervisor and financial reporting accountant at four different companies around the Twin Cities.
Or ask Mary Anderson, who has worked the temporary track even longer — 15 years — holding a variety of senior financial roles from interim CFO to financial project management for nonprofits, small start-ups and large multinationals.
The two women, both married with children, cite flexibility as a major plus. They can take time off between assignments — for maternity leave, child rearing, to care for an aging parent or extended travel. In addition, they point to the variety and challenge of new projects, meeting new people and being valued for the skills they bring to a new company.
Both Shannon and Anderson draw their paychecks through Salo LLC, a contract employment firm that specializes in filling temporary positions in the high-demand areas of finance, information technology and human resources in the Twin Cities and Chicago markets.
While acknowledging the “bittersweet” experience of leaving new friends and colleagues behind at the end of each project, Shannon enjoys “not being married to my job.” For Anderson, who describes the career of an itinerant financial pro as “my lifestyle,” she imagines “it would be fun to come back and actually see” results of projects she hands off.
Dialing staffing up and down
“It’s the future of work,” said Tom Becker, Manpower Group’s vice president of recruiting, describing the growing demand for temporary contract workers as a way employers increasingly “dial staffing up or down” to meet changing workforce needs.
“The employment relationship is becoming much more diverse and complex,” agrees Steve King of Emergent Research in Lafayette, Calif. King, who studies employment trends for the market research firm, estimates that more than 35 percent of the current workforce falls into the broad category of “alternative work arrangements” that include not just temp agencies, but also part-time and self-employed contractors, freelancers and on-call workers such as nurses and substitute teachers.
He estimates that this growing category of workers will reach 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, or nearly 60 million people, by the end of this decade. And his estimates ignore the government, which he said outsources “a tremendous number of jobs.”
Several factors are driving the increase in alternative work arrangements, according to industry participants and observers. A company can staff project work, particularly in specialized functional areas like finance, IT, engineering and human resources, without adding permanent employees. Staffing agencies assume the responsibility for Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, sparing the client company of those obligations. As baby boomers retire, the lack of experienced and skilled workers coming up behind them also creates demand, particularly for specialized skills. And coming out of the Great Recession, companies are reluctant to add employees until they are confident the economy is in a prolonged upturn.
So the business case is obvious. But other factors feed the growth and shape of alternative employment as well. In the most recent recession, repeated rounds of bruising layoffs were emotionally draining, sapping company morale and giving “a black eye to the organization,” said Mark Flaherty, a business development director at Salo.
Using more temporary workers insulates companies from that cycle, he explained. In addition, as surviving employees were expected to pick up the work of departing colleagues, salaried workers found that 55- and 60-hour work weeks were becoming the new normal. Many began to question the lifestyle trade-off and became more open to alternative arrangements. Consulting “isn’t as scary” in this new environment, he said. Competition for such high-demand skills as software engineering or financial reporting has created an escalating battle among contract agencies, offering benefits including paid time off, 401(k) plans and enhanced health care plans for their most valued ‘‘gold collar’’ contractors.
Temporary and contract employment has been a magnet for controversy, class-action lawsuits and an evolving body of case law. Microsoft settled a landmark class-action lawsuit in 2000 for $97 million that coincided with rigorous scrutiny and tightened regulations by the IRS and the Department of Labor.
Employers and contract agencies today are more aware of and more adept at walking the evolving tightrope of regulations. And demand for specialized skills that keep highly trained workers like Sharon Anderson and Anka Vela Shannon as busy as they want to be are still the minority of the total temp workforce. But they are a growing and genuine career alternative for some.
Brad Allen is a Minneapolis freelance journalist and former investor relations and corporate communications executive for technology companies including Imation Corp. and Cray Research. His On the Other Hand column will appear monthly. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.