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With the Need for Flexibility, Sometimes the `Boss' May Be A Hire From a Temp Agency

JIM Alexis is a special kind of temp worker. Far from clocking in a couple days of data processing, his last assignment was saving a $250 million printing company heavily laden with debt.

Called an ``interim executive,'' Mr. Alexis is part of a growing phenomenon which is shattering the traditional ``Kelly Girl'' secretary image of temporary workers. Tremendous business restructuring in the economy has fueled the growth of the temp industry at all levels, including chief executive officers such as Alexis. But unlike the growth in low-skilled temp workers, which tends to be cyclical, the growth of executive temps appears to be more permanent.

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``The [temporary work] industry is driven by the rapidity of change in business today,'' says John Thompson, CEO of Connecticut-based IMCOR, the executive-temp agency that placed Alexis. ``Few businesses can operate anymore with a fixed work force.''

With advances in technology, higher costs of permanent labor, and increased competition from a more global economy, the need for companies to be flexible and move quickly has become crucial. The economic restructuring, Alexis says, is a response to become more efficient and to eliminate the inertia of a rigid, hierarchical work force. Increasingly, ``companies are seeking people to do projects, not long-term careers.''

Executive-temp agencies such as IMCOR have flourished by servicing these new needs. Even companies with special requests are met with extraordinary speed and flexibility; executives are often placed within 10 to 15 days and can have contracts of anywhere from two days to two years. Sometimes the turnaround can be lightning fast; IMCOR once shipped out a temporary CEO 48 hours after an emergency request by Westinghouse for someone to help acquire and run a subsidiary seed company.

Also adding to the pressure to use temps is the growing burden of benefits, mandates, and paperwork that accompany each new permanent job.

``Employers are less likely to commit to the old model of hiring because of the new way the labor market operates,'' says economist Joseph Cobb of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

For executive temps, most of whom average a solid 20 to 25 years of corporate management experience, bouncing around jobs provides a constant challenge. Alexis, who specializes in crisis and turnaround management, says he thrives on working for ``troubled companies nobody else wants to touch.'' His motivation comes from ``a need to solve diverse problems, save jobs, and move the economy forward,'' he adds.

Mr. Thompson cites this kind of ``growing entrepreneurship'' as a primary reason why more executives are choosing to work as temps. ``Their skill base is very marketable on an interim basis,'' he says. Nevertheless, more than 40 percent of the executives placed by IMCOR are ultimately recruited as permanent hires.

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Changes in the economy have been so rapid that traditional distinctions between types of employment have been blurred. An avalanche of names has emerged to describe the manifold new arrangements that have replaced the old notion of lifetime employment. Contingent workers, outsourcing, freelancing, throwaway executives, interim workers, and just-in-timers are just a few terms describing the new American work force. Even Thompson admits that IMCOR is ``halfway between a consulting firm and a headhunter.''

All this has spurred the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct a special survey next January to assess the changes. There has been much speculation about the growth of the overall temporary-work industry, and whether it is a cyclical or permanent phenomenon. Typically, companies have hired temporary workers during economic recoveries to be flexible in reorganizing. Once adjusted to new conditions, many temp jobs have become permanent.

The Department of Labor's prediction that 1 out of 6 jobs created in 1994 will be temporary has attracted a great deal of news media coverage on the issue. This debate has centered largely on the low-skilled, so-called ``Mcjobs.'' Yet there appears to be a consensus that the executive temp is here to stay.

``We are seeing the establishment of a strong and permanent niche in the workplace,'' Thompson says.

Despite the changing reality of the temp work force, old stereotypes persist. Seen as underemployed and low-skilled, many companies are reluctant to admit they use temps regularly.

``It's backward thinking which goes back to the old stigma,'' says Bruce Steinberg of the National Association of Temporary Services. Even executives prefer to be called ``interim'' rather than ``temp'' workers, believing that the latter implies someone who is expected to have no impact in the company, Mr. Steinberg says.

``As long as the classical model of lifetime employment stays fixed, the stigma will always exist,'' the Heritage Foundation's Mr. Cobb says.

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