Temporary Jobs: How to Make Them Worth Your While

Image: Temp Job
[Duncan] under Creative Commons

One day last year I stood in the hot Florida sun making minimum wage holding up a six-foot sign advertising an RV show. It was my first job after ten years of self-employment. After the wind tried to toss the sign and me into traffic, I decided to break the rules — I tied it to my car, then sat down to consider just how bad this work was.

Temporary jobs don’t have the best reputation; my experience with the sign was nothing out of the ordinary. But are there good temp jobs, ones that pay decently or develop into longer-term work?

Let’s explore the best way to use temp jobs to earn a decent wage and build your career.

Two Eras of Temp Job Experience

After the sign-holding job, Labor Finders, the temp agency I worked for, assigned me to do construction work in a distant city. I accepted the job, but later calculated my “true” hourly wage based on when I left home until I returned, and deducting actual transportation expenses and taxes. It’s not really an encouraging way to look at what you make, but it is interesting. As it works out, that week I made $2.71 per hour!

Twenty-two years earlier I worked for a different temp agency and was paid around $9.00 per hour for even the easiest assignments. Since prices have risen 71% since then, a job would have to pay $15.39 per hour today to equal that 1991 wage. But here in southern Florida, holding a sign, cleaning a construction site or digging ditches paid just $7.79 per hour (though in 2014, the minimum wage went up to $7.93 per hour). I know real wages are falling in the U.S., but could they have fallen by that much?

Day Labor and Job Placement

Here’s the secret: there are at least two types of temp agencies. The lower-paying ones hire “day labor” and maintain a “labor pool,” an example of which I was drowning in while holding that sign. The other type we’ll call “job placement” companies, which offer better assignments that sometimes lead to permanent positions.

To be fair, most big agencies aim to have both types of opportunities (if you can call digging a ditch by hand for minimum wage an opportunity), but the individual local offices may specialize in one type or the other, whether by design or due to circumstances.

Unless you need work and cash today, look for the better job placement agencies. They are also sometimes called “temporary staffing services.” Search online for local offices by entering “temporary staffing + [your city], or try one of these examples of companies that operate nationwide:

  • Kelly Services: Professional, health care, technical, law, administrative
  • Manpower: Technical, professional, finance, engineering, administrative
  • Accountemps: Accounting, financial, collections, tax preparation
  • Labor Ready: Day labor

That last one is just in case you really do need a job now and are willing to do almost anything at any wage. But if you have the luxury of being able to plan more strategically, here’s how to use a temporary job to your greatest advantage.

4 Ways to Use a Temp Agency to Earn More Than Just Money

1. Work Toward a Full-Time Job

When I worked for Manpower in northern Michigan, some local companies used them as a kind of screening tool, hiring all new employees through the company. When you were assigned to an office, you could be gone in a few days if you didn’t impress the client, but if they liked your work, you went on their payroll after a three months — usually with a raise and benefits.

Try to determine if employers near you are using temp agencies in this way. If you like the potential jobs, this is a great way to get your foot in the door.

2. Test Out Your Options and Preferences

Another option is to use temp agencies to sample different jobs. It’s not always possible, but when I worked for Manpower, I regularly quit assignments after a few days and they kept giving me new ones.

I moved furniture, greeted people at conventions, did banquet setup, packaged infomercial products, installed restaurant equipment, directed traffic during road construction, handed out samples at stores, cleaned up construction sites and more. I enjoyed unloading trucks (who would have guessed?), and I was great at assembly-line work… but I absolutely hated it. This new-job-every-week plan is a good way to learn about yourself and your work preferences. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!).

3. Build Experience

Another smart way to use a temp agency is to gain experience at a specific job in order to land a more permanent position elsewhere. If you get hired temporarily to do tax preparation, for example, you’ll have that experience on your resume when you apply for positions with better pay and benefits. You could also start your own business once you have some experience.

4. Travel

Some temp jobs offer the opportunity to travel and get paid well, if you have the right skills. A friend who is a physical therapist gets three-month assignments in various states — with all moving costs paid by the company. She enjoys exploring new parts of the country, and says she’s well-paid compared to a more stationary job.

Most industries and pay levels have opportunities for temporary employment. For example, while you might not think “physician” when you think of temp work, but doctors can earn over $125 per hour for assignments through temp agencies.

Temporary work is here to stay and growing: Kelly Services has become the second largest employer in the country, after Walmart. While it may not be your first choice of work, consider whether you could use a temp agency to get where you want to be. Just remember to make it live up to its name: make it a temporary tool for working toward your future plans.

Your Turn: Have you ever worked for a temp agency?