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Temporary work called the new normal for many in NH

Special to the Union Leader

February 18. 2013 9:38PM
Woodsville native Kimberly Maki, who was hired by Bonney Staffing for a temporary work stint screening applicants, sits at her desk and talks with employment specialist Jasmin Curtis. Maki, who has a background in human services and speech and language pathology, was at Bonney when the agency received a request from a special needs school for help in the front office; she starts that full-time job the end of this month. (BARBARA TAORMINA PHOTO)

Temporary work is now being described as the "new normal" by a wide range of workforce analysts who have plenty of numbers to back up the claim.

Sheri Merrill, manager of the Portsmouth office of Bonney Staffing, said she would be happy to share her take on the trends with temporary employment in New Hampshire, but it was around 3 p.m. on Wednesday and she had just talked with a client who needed 10 workers - by Friday.

New Hampshire's unemployment rate rose from 4.9 to 5.6 percent during 2012, and while that's still well below the national rate of 7.8 percent, it still represents more than 41,000 people. But business is great at Bonney and other staffing agencies where Merrill and fellow employment specialists are finding temporary jobs for people in manufacturing, management, office administration, purchasing, information technology and many other career fields.

"Our busy season usually starts around March, but this year has been different," said Merrill, whose list of business clients starts at the Seacoast and runs west to Wolfeboro, Concord and Manchester.

According to the American Staffing Association, 12.9 million people are hired by staffing agencies each year; on any given workday, about 2.8 million people punch in to temporary jobs.

But the statistic that may be the strongest jolt for people who view job security as part of their personal career plan comes from a 2012 Economic Intelligence Unit Study that predicts by 2030, about half of all working Americans will be part of a contingency workforce made up of entrepreneurs, self-employed contractors, freelancers and temporary workers.

Merrill said European countries are shifting to a contingency workforce and the current U.S. trend of hiring temporary workers could be the start of a similar change. But she and other staffing agency managers and owners also say the 2008 recession and the fickle recovery are fueling the demand for temp workers.

The staffing industry

Tracy Madden was a human resources manager for Seabrook Station until downsizing at the power plant left her without a job. She went to a staffing agency for some help finding something new and realized quickly that the differences between staffing and human resources are slim.

So Madden launched McIntosh Staffing Resources in Dover in 1986, and has been channeling talented temporary and full-time workers to local businesses ever since. While the staffing industry has seen some tough stretches over the years, she said agencies have rebounded and are doing well.

Madden feels the sense of uncertainty about what's ahead has businesses opting for temporary workers rather than full-time employees.

"The economy is perceived, by some, as weak, and that perception creates managers who are gun-shy about hiring," she said.

Companies that work on a contract or project basis have seen contracts dissolve, and maintaining a full staff becomes difficult and costly.

"The other issue is health care reform," said Madden. "Companies that hire temporary workers don't have to get involved with the costs."

Madden also sees companies streamlining their workforce and cutting down from 12 or 13 employees to eight or nine people who still get the job done.

"They are looking for people to fill hybrid positions," said Madden. "They are looking for people who can do anything in a particular business setting."

Myths, misconceptions

Businesses that rely on staffing agencies for temporary workers are spared the costs of health care and other benefits. But that doesn't always mean temp workers have no sick days or insurance.

Staffing agencies consider temporary workers as employees and many offer some benefits.

"We do provide certain benefits for employees who have been with us for one year," said Nicole Horan, a business manager at Squires Staffing Services in Nashua. "We have a 401k plan and paid holidays and sick days."

And some staffing agencies also help temp employees access limited health care insurance.

"It's not meant to mirror what you would get with a full-time position, but it does give you the opportunity to access basic care," said Merrill.

No fees charged

But staffing specialists say one of the biggest misconceptions about temp work is that agencies charge fees and shave off a significant part of a worker's salary for their services.

"There are no fees and clients pay market rates for temporary work,' said Horan. "It depends on the job responsibilities and skills."

Staffing agencies which need to cover liabilities, taxes, worker's compensation and the cost of running their offices compete with one another on how much they mark up the cost of placing workers with businesses.

Horan said one thing temporary employees don't often get is the opportunity for on-the-job training. While there may be some flexibility with training for temp-to-hire jobs, positions that are meant to evolve into permanent jobs, business expect temporary workers to have certain skills.

"They are calling us because they don't have the time to train," said Horan.

And that's been a problem in manufacturing, one of the hottest sectors of the economy for staffing agencies.

"Manufacturing is seeing a shortage of qualified workers," said Horan. "There's a huge need for CNC, (computer numerical control) machinists."

Jobs that fit

Like other staffing managers, Merrill spends a lot of time networking with business leaders, talking about their concerns and changing needs. And when she's not talking with employers, she's usually talking with workers about their professional experiences and aspirations.

She then sits down with co-worker Jasmin Curtis and puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

"I like trying to identify a candidate's ideal position and then going through the list of available jobs to see what fits," said Curtis.

A lot of staffing professionals avoid the term temp worker.

"People who apply are our applicants, those we are placing are candidates and those in jobs are our employees," said Merrill, who sees her role as an off-site supervisor for temporary workers.

And applicants, candidates and employees come from many different backgrounds.

"We have people who have been laid off but are looking for temporary work to keep their skills sharp," said Horan.

Staff agencies also see retirees, part-time workers and people who have jobs but want to tap into new opportunities.

Merrill and Curtis consider themselves advocates, and sometime cheerleaders, for temporary workers. And there's plenty of high-fiving and satisfaction when people are hired for temporary jobs and even more celebrating when their employees are offered full-time positions.

Madden said those are the best moments for people in staffing, especially for local agencies with community roots and connections.

"The most rewarding part of the job is the ability to change the chapters of people's lives," she said.

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