Behind the Rise of Temp Work

Q&A with Vicki Smith, coauthor of "The Good Temp"


In The Good Temp, Vicki Smith and coauthor Esther B. Neuwirth explain how temp jobs became an entrenched feature of labor markets, helping erode the traditional permanent employment model. Smith, a professor and chair of the sociology department at University of California-Davis, researched mostly lower-wage temporary employment—by far the majority of temp jobs.

Even with its drawbacks, Smith says, temp work already accounts for up to 4 percent of U.S. jobs and will not be shrinking anytime soon. In a chat with U.S. News, she shared secrets of how temp agencies sell themselves and offered ways to subvert the temping system in the hopes of getting a permanent job. Excerpts:

How heavily do Americans rely on temp work? And is it a healthy phenomenon?

The percentage of the workforce in temporary employment is small, somewhere between 2 and 4 percent. It's hard to know if it's healthy. It's a good thing that these jobs are available, because for a lot of people it is the job that they can get.... It's dynamic because people are moving around. That's a healthy thing rather than a situation where the whole job scene is very stagnant, where you have only a few routes available to get permanent jobs. How stable is the temp market compared with the shaky full-time job market?

Many of the problems that temporary workers experience are shared by low-wage workers in general. A lot of temps have had permanent jobs that are no more permanent or secure. The work conditions are not particularly better. Very often they wouldn't have had health coverage—which is the case with most temporary jobs. So, temp work can look even better because it can be a chance to turn over—to become a permanent worker. What's the situation with health benefits?

Very few temporary jobs provide health benefits. Having said that, there are many agencies that advertise that they can provide health benefits to their employees, but they are typically unattainable because the temps have to pay for the plans themselves. And when you earn low wages, you can't afford these plans. Is temp-to-hire just a lure?

Some agencies specifically advertise that they recruit for temp-to-perm jobs. It's a tricky thing because while they may advertise it, the actual rates of turnover to permanent jobs can be low. But there is something real and useful about that market niche: Many companies today prefer to hire temporary workers over hiring permanent workers, because the cost and the risks [of hiring permanent workers] are too high. It's a slightly different temporary employment. They hire temporary workers as their own recruitment strategy—to give possible permanent workers a test run. Companies may not say this explicitly, but we do know that it's one piece of temporary employment. The basic picture is that employers have gotten cold feet because they don't want to fire employees...because there have been so many lawsuits around the promise of employment. And people get fired and they're unhappy. And this is one way that employers have tried to cut their costs in the courts.

What's the agency's cut?

Agencies charge the hiring company an hourly rate, and the agency gets a percentage of that—and the temp gets the rest. Sometimes the agency will get a bonus fee for a "conversion" [a temp going to regular placement]—kind of a commission. That's interesting because historically when an agency would place a temp there would be one fee and it would be paid by the temporary worker. (It might be something like half of the first month's salary.) But after that point, the temp's wages were the temp's wages. Now it's different. Now the agency makes a percentage of every hour's wage. So as long as the temp is employed, the agency is making money off of that person. This is one of the things that have fueled the rise of what we call perma-temps (that is, temporary workers who work for very long periods of time at the same company). So there's no financial incentive to make the temps to go around to different jobs.