Temp is a four letter word . . .
by Joe Harkins

   For many a small and medium-sized business it also spells salvation. A temp sales manager, comptroller or chief engineer is a practical idea for an increasing number of eager companies. For downsized executives, it can be either a pay-as-you-go route to a new position, or the start of a whole new style of working.

   In recent years, corporate downsizing and the resulting flood of available middle management talent has given the practice of hiring temporary executives a new popularity, especially among smaller to medium sized businesses who find them an affordable alternative to a top-heavy, full-time roster.

   Temporary services can double as a company's human resource department, and even many giants, especially in volatile industries such as financial and information gathering, are taking this route. Instead of the time and expense of running an ad, screening resumes, checking resources and testing skills, then taking the possible risk of locking an incompatible employee into a key position, "temp to hire" has become a standard practice even for executive jobs such as comptrollers, sales managers and purchasing directors. Those three fields have been especially hot lately for one placement specialist and her temp executives.

   "This segment of our business, placing management executives into specific short-term projects or for potential permanent hire, is five times the size it was when we identified it in 1992 as a operation separate from our traditional executive search activities." said Susan Ascher president of The Ascher Group in Verona, NJ. "Last year our volume of these kinds of placements doubled. As I see it, this is not just a matter of riding out the recession or making up a portion of lost income while recovering from downsizing. That's over. Temp executives are now career temps.

   She continued, "Many start out wanting to replace their lost positions while looking for a permanent job, but soon realize they prefer the lifestyle that allows them 'a real life' outside of the job. This is especially true with Generation X people. I have some of these so-called temps who have been doing revolving assignments for three years, and they've been turning down hiring offers. The ones who are having the roughest adjustment are the baby boomers. Too many just don't have the required skills, which are often computer intensive."

   Frank Wycoff of Snelling and Snelling in Eatontown NJ supports that opinion, and says that too often corporate outplacement services are just an ego-soothing device that does little to prepare later-term job-seekers for the realities they face. He urges them, and prospective employers, to take a longer, wider view citing fundamental changes in the way the business world works. "It used to be that middle management employees identified themselves with management as a permanent resource within the corporate structure. Downsizing began when upper management targeted them as a labor cost to be controlled or even eliminated, except when absolutely needed."

   The phrase "core and ring" comes up often in his conversation. "Once that perception took hold, seeing middle and upper-middle management as a variable expense, the race was on to see how fast and how far they could be cut. The current perception of the 'right-size' structure involves a core of people with absolutely irreplaceable skill sets and experience, plus an outer ring of flexible dimensions that adjusts to the shifting needs, made up of middle managers and staff. The function of the core is to control the size of the ring"

   The resulting liberated work force of managers is still needed, but not all the time, nor in the same place. In some fields, such as marketing, the use of project-specific sales managers and even entire sales forces is growing. Wycoff mentions a seasonal employer who was poised for growth, but whose attention and energies were focused on product development. The temporary sales manager brought in for the project was given two goals; write a business plan and put together a sales force to implement it. Telemarketing was chosen as the most efficient distribution method, but the market limited need for them to 90 or 120 days a year.

   With the plan in place, the sales manager brought in an out-sourced telemarketing staff of ten people. When the campaign was concluded, the staff was returned to the source and the sales manager went back to the temporary placement company looking for a new project.

   That's how it's now possible to acquire an entire an entire department, complete with top management, by leasing it, or in some cases to "sell" an existing one and lease it back. "Why would anyone want to do that?" is the question asked by virtually every prospect she meets says Rickie Nichols, special project manager for The ASI Group of Green Brook NJ.

   "We become your Human Resource Department and do it at less cost, and more efficiently because the same resources need to handle the personnel management function for a five hundred employee department can also handle two or three or ten more departments for a number of clients simultaneously at a lower cost per individual, and that saving means more efficiency for our clients. We relieve a business of the headache of employee payroll make-up, tax record keeping, audits, filing penalties, and benefits resource screening. Our clients keeps the same staff, we take away the problems of serving their needs."

   The downside of temping, even for the most qualified and flexible executives includes substantially lower income, and few benefits. Susan Ascher points out, "A typical temporary executive, perhaps a middle manager who might have earned $75,000 to $100,000 a year in a larger company, can probably expect to earn only about 2/3rds of that. On the other hand, this is the only job search route by which you can get paid while looking."

   Jackie Finestone, Branch Manager of Account Source Temps in Paramus sees the issue of unrealistic income expectations as the biggest hurdle for those who expect temp work to lead to a permanent job. "I constantly confront the problem of temps who would turn down a short term assignment on the grounds that it doesn't pay the same as their former job. Those who are more flexible have discovered those assignments broaden their appeal to the prospective permanent employer. Six months to a year of various types of work, while building new skills, look a lot more attractive on a resume than a no-job gap."

   Despite their vision that the job world is going through profound and permanent change, most professional executive placement people interviewed for this article are seeing encouraging trends.

   Susan Ascher summed it up, "In the last five years, as employers have shed staff, some have become positively anorexic. When the pressure was on to reduce the head-count, the resulting departmental profile left no reserves to handle the emergencies that will arise. When staff has been honed to the bone, who can be spared to take do the Director's job when she is out for six months due to a difficult pregnancy, or if there is no Assistant Sales Manager, who will fill in while the Sales Manager takes a husband's domestic leave to care for his newborn baby? The executive who steps in must be at least as well qualified, and probably has to bring a few additional skills just to keep in step with the existing situation. I refer to this as a 'Ginger Rogers Challenge’ Ginger danced the same steps as Fred Astaire but backwards, and in high heels." –30-

Business News - New Jersey, June 1997

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