Help me become a temp
November 5, 2013 2:06 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to leave my relatively stable (but likely dead-end) job for temp work, with the hope of landing in a position with more potential to be a career--or, at least, the potential for occasional promotions. If you've done this, I'd like to hear what worked well for you, what didn't, and what you wish you'd thought of ahead of time.

A couple of things I'd like to hear your thoughts about:

1. Benefits. My current job doesn't pay particularly well but has excellent benefits, including cheap & good health insurance, 175 hours of PTO/year, and a tax-deferred retirement account with a 3% match. What can I do in advance to prepare to not have any/these benefits? What benefits can I expect a temp agency to offer? If they do offer health insurance, what happens if I'm between assignments, and how will this interact with Obamacare? Preliminary questions lead me to believe that my hourly wage may be higher right off the bat (possibly $14 or $15/hour vs $13 at my current position), but I'm not sure how to account for my benefits: what I can expect to replace, and how much it will cost?

2. If you've worked as a temp, how long did your positions last, how much time did you spend out of work between them, and, in general, is it realistic to expect that this could lead to permanent employment? Should I, for instance, plan to be out of work for more than one month per year?

3. I would prefer to only take positions which I can reach by bike or public transportation. I'm a fairly capable cyclist, and commutes of 15-20 miles don't discourage me. Should I be up front about this, or will it sink my chances of being placed? I do have access to a car--used to be mine, can't realistically afford it, recently transferred the title to my girlfriend, who uses it to commute to her job--but a regular car commute would mean that we would need to purchase a second vehicle, which would more than wipe out any short-term wage increase.

4. If you have suggestions for temp/employment agencies in the Chicago area, I'd like to hear them. I previously worked with Momentum Scientific, but their website has gone dark and I can't reach them by phone. I have a BS in biology and experience working as a microbiologist in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, but don't want to limit myself to scientific staffing agencies, especially because most of the jobs appear to be far, far out in the suburbs (Momentum offered me positions in Crown Point, Indiana, 50 miles away, and Kankakee, IL, 60 miles away, both of which I delcined). On the other hand, I'm not sure if I want to get stuck a career admin, which seems to be another popular direction staffing services can take you.
posted by pullayup to Work & Money (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
When I've temped, there were weeks when I didn't work at all. There were also weeks during which I worked one or two days. The work was extraordinarily dull and payed terribly. There was never a possibility of moving to full time. I made more money and had a more fulfilling time working in a coffee shop.

Why not just look for a new full-time job?
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:08 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was a temp in Dallas circa 2000 and again in NYC circa 2010.

1. I did not receive health/vacation/investment benefits from my temp agency at any point.

2. My assignments were everywhere from 3 days long to several months. Your agency will ask you what length of assignment you prefer. At no point was I ever out of work for more than a few days, but I think I was pretty fortunate and this is not the norm.

3. Public transportation in Chicago is extensive enough that telling your agency that your assignment needs to be CTA accessible shouldn't hurt.

From my experience, being a temp is not how I would get OUT of a dead end job. The assignments I had were fine, paid the bills, and one lead to a permanent admin-type job, but I never saw any promise of them putting me on a career track.
posted by marshmallow peep at 2:13 PM on November 5, 2013

1. Almost no temp agencies offer any kind of benefits. You'll be interacting with Obamacare through the exchanges, and depending on your income, you may get some pretty sweet assistance paying for it.

2. Sometimes two weeks, sometimes two weeks, sometimes six months. Sometimes I spent weeks without work, sometimes days. There was a month in there too.

2b. The job I have now I got through a temp job. However, it is by no means career-oriented.

3. Absolutely be up-front with your preferences. Placement people don't like placing you blind to your preferences.

4. I'm in D.C. so can't help you there.
posted by General Malaise at 2:13 PM on November 5, 2013

Temping is really a mixed bag. But I can tell you one thing - the quality of the health insurance that they offer is probably going to be less than the one you're getting now, and you're going to be paying a lot more for it.

My current contracting position through an otherwise excellent temp agency, has an health care plan so horrible that the *recruiter* recommend that I not take it - and if I had any other way to get health insurance, to do that instead. So, I'm paying $500 for my healthcare plan through COBRA, that is from my old FTE job that I got laid off from in late July. And there's no way that this plan meets Obamacare standards - very low ceiling of costs, very high deductible, a pre-existing condition clause, and barely covers prescription medications at all.

That may become an issue very quickly for you.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2013

I've done a lot of temping for different agencies and am currently working as a long-term temp, and unless the job's actively bad, I would not leave regular employment (with benefits!) for temp work.

Joke benefits plans are all you can expect out of temp agencies. The situation will improve significantly in January, but you're going to be buying an individual policy, with no contribution from the agency. You don't get paid holidays (much less any other paid time off) until you've been working for many months full-time, and that only applies if you're getting all your work through the same agency (and not all agencies offer it).

If your only complaint about your current job is that it's dead-end, stay put and look for a job while you're pulling in that steady paycheck with access to sweet, sweet health care and paid time off. Temping mostly means you're doing the same thing but without any of that.
posted by asperity at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I temped in Chicago in 2008 and 2009. The hourly pay was decent, but the work was not steady (some weeks I worked every day, some days I got nothing) and definitely provided no benefits - I think after the six month mark you could get on their (terrible, expensive) health plan. Sometimes companies would like me and request me when their admin was out on vacation, but that was as good as it got - a week or two in the same place. If I'd kept at it, maybe I would have picked up a maternity leave position eventually. The agencies advertised career help - like, they'd try to hook me up with something permanent - but that never materialized.

FWIW, I'm not a science guy but I was a capable temp, with a BA, admin/customer service background, and 120 wpm typing, which is mostly what the companies wanted.

When you say you are willing to bike 20 miles - that's great, but how long does it take you? I'd pretty frequently get calls at 6:30 a.m. where I had to be in the Loop by 7.

I didn't love the temp agencies I worked for, so I won't recommend them.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:17 PM on November 5, 2013

This is such a bad idea. Just look for another full-time job. Temp agencies will give you shitty benefits, you probably won't work full-time, and you might not make more than your currently hourly wage. I understand wanting to just change something, but quitting your job to temp when you clearly have no idea what you're getting into is a Bad Idea. Just look for another job and use your paid time off to job hunt.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:20 PM on November 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: To be clear, I am looking for a full-time job, but I'm in a weird limbo where I essentially have no job skills--before returning to college as an adult, I worked in a weird corner of retail--and have no opportunity to pick any up at my current job. My the other job I've been able to land is as a seasonal tech in a bike shop, and pays $10/hour.

I like to think I'm a smart guy, but I just don't have any experience doing anything marketable (other than my experience in a cGMP microbiology lab), and I'm not going to, like, teach myself SalesForce or Ruby on Rails or whatever unless I have a job where I use it. Plus, most science jobs outside of academia seem to only hire through employment agencies.

When you say you are willing to bike 20 miles - that's great, but how long does it take you? I'd pretty frequently get calls at 6:30 a.m. where I had to be in the Loop by 7.

This is totally doable, and I would probably actually beat a car, door-to-door, because I don't need to find parking. Being in Naperville in an hour, though, I couldn't manage.
posted by pullayup at 2:30 PM on November 5, 2013

If you're prepared to be out of work most of the time, make less money than you make now, and have no control over your schedule, go for it!

The car thing is a red herring. You're not going to learn anything at a temp job. If you want to pick up new skills, there are better ways to do it.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:33 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree that temping may not be right for you. I did it for years in the Chicago area and am not confident the current job market could give you anything other than admin jobs.

A lot of companies hire temps for longterm assignments because they don't have the budget for a headcount. So you get to do a full time job, often with very little training, zero benefits, no sick days, no paid holidays (tho' this varies, but often you have to work the day before and the day after a holiday in order to get holiday pay), and many times it's the crappy jobs that no one else in the office wants to handle. Sit in a dark cube with no windows verifying that a stack of invoices have cleared the ancient accounting system? Check. Enter customer names for a newspaper route manager into a database, in the dude's bedroom? Check. Fix someone's mile long crappy Word document, where they put chapter breaks in place of page breaks? Check.

It wasn't all bad, there were some decent jobs working with great people, but overall, you're treated like the lowest rung on the ladder. If you're an artist or student and looking for flexibility and a chance to earn a few extra bucks, it's okay.

Good agencies are Robert Half and Aquent. But have you looked into technical writing? It sounds like that might be a good fit for your skill base and hopefully would pay more than what you're earning now. I think Robert Half does that, you might want to check with them.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:34 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Consider trying to get some volunteer work in to boost your skills and fill out your resume. The benefits are worth much more than that $2/hr raise might be, no joke.
posted by asperity at 2:36 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

is it realistic to expect that this could lead to permanent employment?

I wasted a decade of my working life going from temp job to temp job, hoping that the next assignment would be THE ONE where I broke through and got benefits, insurance, etc.

I failed to find long-term permanent work. And this was during a much better job market than we one we are currently enduring.

Should I, for instance, plan to be out of work for more than one month per year?

Knowing what I know now, I would plan to be working for one month a year.

I can understand your frustration, but if you proceeded with your plan, you'd only be trading one dead-end for an even worse dead-end. Also, sacrificing health insurance for an extra two bucks an hour is not a wise choice. You seem to be taking health insurance and other benefits for granted. Trust me, you don't want to lose the peace of mind that insurance provides. I have a vivid memory of slipping on the ice during my uninsured period and thinking to myself, in mid-fall:


I don't think those sorts of thoughts anymore. You can't put a price on that.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:50 PM on November 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best-case scenario in terms of maximizing your hours and pay as a temp is a long-term gig, where you know you're going to get 40 hours of paid work a week, and maybe even some overtime sometimes. However, the long-term nature of it and the lack of benefits mean that you're doing it day in, day out, no real breaks in the routine. Sometimes short-term gigs start to look good since at least you'd have some off days/weeks/months, but then you remember you wouldn't be able to afford to do anything much with them.

I've had very good experiences temping (or at least as good as they can be when they don't care enough to make sure you can have a paid day off here and there to maintain sanity and health) and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone who's unemployed, because any work's better than none if you need it. It doesn't sound like you're in that situation.

As for volunteer work: I don't know much about how you can use your biology skills outside of a traditional work environment, but it's likely your local bicycle collective organization(s?) and advocacy groups can use you. You've already got the obvious repair skills. Put them to work teaching a repair class, and boom, you've got education experience on your resume. Draw up some flyers or write copy for press releases, and hey, that's marketing. Maybe you'd like to learn web design -- help out with the website. This is all applicable to other organizations. Are you unhappy with your local bicycle infrastructure or policy? Get involved with your local government. You've got options!

One of the great benefits of temporary employment is that you get to learn and try new things without having to convince an employer to take any real chance on you. If you're unemployed, it's a great place to start. But you're not. You've got stability that most of us temps can only dream about, and you should be using that in ways that we can't as easily -- the lack of health care and time off really does sap our energy to do much else with our spare time. Don't give up what you've got unless you've got a damn good reason.
posted by asperity at 3:20 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Consider trying to get some volunteer work in to boost your skills and fill out your resume. The benefits are worth much more than that $2/hr raise might be, no joke.

This! Volunteer work is a good way to make connections and learn skills. Also, if you were to include the value your healthcare & retirement benefits, I bet you "make" more than you would temping.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:39 PM on November 5, 2013

These days the chances of temp work leading to a full-time position with potential are quite slim. Companies purposely hire temps or part-timers long-term to keep their costs much lower. Do volunteer work or take evening classes or go back to school to get ahead instead. There are good reasons why everyone here is telling you temping won't likely get you anywhere. Also, it is much easier to get hired somewhere if you have a f/t job than are a lowly temp.
posted by wildflower at 4:17 PM on November 5, 2013

Be wary of Chicago temping. It is a real mixed bag - at least in my experience. Compared to NYC where I temped for over a decade and did quite well, Chicago is tepid at best. What I found that in the Chicago area, the norm seemed to be the opposite of other large cities in terms of temp rates. In NYC (and other places), I could command a decent rate that reflected the fact that due to the short term aspect of the job, the rate was adjusted upward to compensate. Here in Chicago, it was almost always the opposite. Not only that, I found that agencies displayed and attitude they were doing you a favor by offering a piss-ant rate. Ask for a dollar an hour up after 6 months and you would think you were asking for the keys to Fort Knox. It was baffling as I had never encountered such a unworkable environment.

Now part of this may be due to changes in perceptions of employers about temps in that they do not value them as much and this could be a nationwide thing. I am not sure. What happened in the end was that I simply chose to work as an online freelancer. Given the horrible rates that were being offered, it became clear that it would be more profitable to work from home as opposed to incurring all the commuting costs. Yes, the online rates can suck too, but at least I don't have to commute farther than my kitchen and back.

If I wasn't taking care of a family member, I would flee this area in a heartbeat. Culturally and socially, it's a nice place, but for a freelancer, it is a bitch.

YMMV obviously and others upthread have had success, so don't be discouraged if it is something you really want to do. Just approach temping in ChiTown with caution.
posted by lampshade at 4:20 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Temping is just a bad idea. It will not solve any of your problems. It won't offer increased opportunities for advancement, and additionally you will lose your benefits which, for a person only making $13 an hour, are pretty spectacular, honestly.

Would your current job with the great benefits reimburse you for any coursework? You could go to school at night. Biology is one field where It hink only having the Bachelor's level works against you, and you are running into that.

Even if it wouldn't, you might consider increasing your education anyway. I know you don't want to learn Ruby on Rails or whatever, but you could start looking around at those people who DO have the jobs you want and figure what gave them their edge. Maybe it was a graduate degree, or some specific marketable skills you could learn. You aren't going to get more if you have nothing more to offer than the last time you looked for work.
posted by misha at 4:30 PM on November 5, 2013

I'm in Chicago. Are you on LinkedIn? If not, you should definitely be. That's how recruiters have always found me, and vice versa. It seems like the recruiters on LinkedIn for short-term or FT jobs are more specialized. I see a lot of IT, fundraising, science, design, etc. recruiters on there. I think it would be worth it for you, especially being a science-y type. You'd get a lot of emails.

As a fundraising professional, I get a lot of short-term recruiter emails from LinkedIn recruiters, which I turn down bc I'm happy with my FT job, but I totally understand the skill development thing.
posted by dovesandstones at 4:47 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've worked for a temp agency in NYC and continue to work for one now in the form of a recruiter. Some of the larger agencies do offer benefits and 401k's to temps... but in order to be eligible for these benefits you'd have to maintain a 40 hour work week. It's a lot harder now because the temp business isn't what it used to be. Companies have become a lot pickier on who they hire and we get a lot of client requests that are virtually impossible.

Linkedin is used a lot now and recruiters as well as companies are constantly looking there to hire. But if benefits are important to you I would simply call agencies and ask if they offer their temps benefits and if so what are the requirements for a temp to receive them. It varies with each company. In the last few years temp agencies have had less and less work available not only due to the economy, but because the internet has been used to replace recruiters (Linkedin being one of many examples). If you wanted to spend 40 hours a week temping at different companies back in the 1990's or 2000 you could've literally made that your career. Now-a-days you might be lucky to get 3 days a week depending on job market for your skill-set. But don't be afraid to ask because each job market and agency is different. If you're looking for a "Temp to Perm" position (A temp job that will likely turn into a Permanent one) you need to specifically ask for that when you talk to the agency.
posted by manderin at 5:29 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I temped in Chicago for years, mostly long-term stuff. I guess you could say it eventually led to a job I liked, but in a very indirect way that took years. For the most part, though, the assignments I got were for positions similar to the ones I'd already done. It was the career equivalent of a hamster wheel.

Temping is a good move in some situations, like "I need a job right now" or "I literally have no work history." It's not really a good way to sniff out potential careers, and it's not worth sacrificing a full-time job and those sweet, sweet benefits.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:40 PM on November 5, 2013

I've never temped in Chicago, having never lived there, but I HAVE temped in a lot of cities all over the US, and unless it's changed drastically in the last few years, it's doable as a full time gig, but you've gotta know what you're doing.

Temping provided my bread and butter for most of my working life (I'm disabled now), but I did it for personal reasons, and not to advance my career. Anyway, it will totally work full time. If you want to do this then, sign up with AT LEAST five temp agencies at one time and call them every morning. I cannot recall a single time when I went a week without work while temping. A day, yes, maybe two, but never a week. I usually signed up for light warehouse and office work. The thing is, most people will turn down the two day $7 an hour job because they think another, better paying job will come along, and you just can't do that if you're temping for a living. Take any job they offer. Money is money, and any work you do is experience.

During my time as a temp, several companies offered me full time positions, I can remember at least six off the top of my head, so temp to perm happens. I never worried about benefits because I never really stayed in one place long enough for benefits to take effect. Can't help you there. Sorry.
posted by patheral at 7:50 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think a lot depends on your skill set and what kind of companies you want to work at. Also whether you are 22 or 42 and whether you have dependents or family that might need support.

In the early 2000s I was always able to find temp work and my temp assignments would often turn into permanent employment, sometimes in an area I'd had no experience in prior to the temp assignment. I definitely picked up a lot of skills from temping. In some cases I was eligible for benefits - this is variable. Positions might last a couple of days or a couple of years. Sometimes I'd make a good impression on an admin job and that might turn into a different role at the same place.

A few years ago I was deeply unhappy with my full-time job and took a temp job. Even though on paper the temp job was very similar to what I had previously been doing, it led me in a very different direction and into my current career. The job market was different then, though.

More recently I put out feelers for temp work while I was unemployed. I was surprised at how long it took me to find even a temp job - though to be fair when I was younger I took pretty much anything that came along at any rate - receptionist for $11 or $12, call center worker for less. (Like patheral says above). At this point in my life I have specialized skills that command a higher rate but take a big longer to land a job in.

Look at the job postings for temp work on See what you are qualified for. If you are still serious about doing this, then at least try to land a gig before you quit. Think about your safety net, your savings, your age, your plan B and plan C. Talk to any staffing agency reps or hiring managers you can about the current market and how often they have temps with minimal experience and how often a temp job turns into a permanent role. Like within the past 6 months.

You might also consider other ways of exploring career options - volunteering is mentioned above, also informational interviews, finding mentors, taking classes, using online tutorials and classes, etc. See if you can do some working vacations where you take time off work to try something different.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 8:05 PM on November 5, 2013

1. The comment about joke benefits is correct. There are basically none from what I can tell.

2. Some contracts last only a few days, others have lasted months. I have gone several months without finding a placement.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that you imagine you will sign up at a temp agency, and they will actively work to keep you near-constantly employed. That has not been my experience. Everyone I know who is also looking for work is signed at multiple recruiters, and it is a constant balancing act to ensure that you aren't submitted for the same position by more than one. Some agencies are aggressive and will try to submit you for anything regardless of your stated interests. Some won't submit without you asking them to, and others do nothing but the paperwork if you get a placement and then you never hear from them again.

IME you should absolutely, positively expect to not work for several months a year. I have been doing this for a year and half now through five recruiters, and have been proactively notified that I was being submitted for a position only about half a dozen times. It seems to me that the power and prevalence of recruiters nowadays is just a racket, as I am still doing the vast majority of work to be done in finding placements. I wish I had known ahead of time that they are largely useless, as I wasted a lot of time thinking that they were going to help me much more than they have.

3. Be up front about any hard limits you have.

4. As an accidental career admin, I highly recommend that you do whatever you can to utilize that BS and get yourself a career in science. From what I have seen, companies nowadays view admin employees as so expendable that there are almost no temp-to-hire opportunities, whereas the company I am currently temping for only hires some of their more skilled staff that way. If you can stay on the science track, I suspect you will have more opportunities in the long run.

In general, I think asperity is on the money. I started doing this because I was miserable in the job I'd had before, which lasted for 13 years. I had all the benefits and time off I could want, it was just soul-killing and I didn't fit in there. I positively adore the company I am temping for now and have gotten 3 different contracts for them this year. But there is no hope of getting a full time job with them this way and a lot of the time, they can't even tell me how long the contract will last. If I had known what the employment situation was like nowadays, I would have stayed at my soul-killing job.
posted by heatvision at 7:09 AM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

i have been temping in chicago for the past 8 or so years. lampshade has it right: temp agencies here pretty much feel that they are doing you the favor and you will need to be as flexible as possible to get work.

how bad is the temp market here: i was just offered a short term gig from a regular agency that i've worked at for years for many assignments. it was an assignment that i have worked before at the same company that i have temped at three or four times in the past five years. this time the temp agency offered me $2 less per hour.
posted by lester at 7:19 PM on November 7, 2013

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