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'Temp' Trials: Making Job Turnover a Career Asset

This year Americans have been through a roller coaster ride of news on the economy, from reports of massive corporate layoffs to the late July statistics on major gains in employment.

What seems clear is that a constantly changing economy and job market is here to stay. More frequent economic swings and less predictability make it necessary for workers to prepare for regular employment transitions. After all, even July's good employment numbers showed an increase in the unemployment rate and masked widespread underemployment.

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As Labor Secretary Robert Reich says, constant change and uncertainty cause great anxiety. But he rightly points out that the challenge for policymakers and individuals alike is to make change a friend, not a foe - to take advantage of inevitable transitions as an opportunity.

What's been overlooked in discussions about jobs, education, and training is that one often-maligned employment sector - the temporary-help industry - can offer important lessons about how to make a changing job market an opportunity. Over the last few years, our nonprofit organization, Jobs for the Future, has studied the temporary-help industry, working with its most successful company, Manpower Inc., now the nation's largest employer.

Some of the standard characteristics of "temp" firms provide real benefits for individual workers. Rotating through jobs can give workers a better perspective on possible jobs - letting them try out different options. It exposes them to networks of people who have permanent jobs. And the skills assessment, training, and placement expertise of temp firms helps match people to the right jobs.

While employers use temps to avoid the costs of a wrong hire, temporary work is also increasingly used as a "back door" into the labor market and permanent jobs. Forty percent of Manpower temporaries secure full-time jobs as a result of their temporary placements.

Much of the reason so many temporaries are placed in full-time jobs is the way Manpower and other firms screen people into jobs, rather than out of jobs. They identify as many different jobs as possible for which each temp is qualified. Their philosophy is that every individual has work-relevant skills that can be measured, and that every job can be broken down into identifiable tasks and skills.

Unlike most public-sector employment and training programs, temporary-help firms emphasize what workers can do, not what they cannot do.

Temporary-help firms also use sophisticated skill-assessment methods. Unlike most government programs, Manpower views its role not only to remedy skill deficiencies of individuals, but also to identify strengths that could lead to as many different jobs as possible.

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This job-search strategy is valuable for new work-force entrants, displaced workers, those reentering the labor market, and those seeking better jobs, as well as welfare recipients.

Manpower is also putting into practice what business leaders, educators, and blue-ribbon panels have long called for - providing a broad range of up-to-date skills. For example, it has its own training packages that produce temporary employees skilled in the most cutting-edge computer software. It even has agreements with IBM and Microsoft for access to their latest hardware and software before it hits offices.

And in the area of customer service, Manpower's "Putting Quality to Work" training series equips workers with the broader skills that are essential in today's workplaces, such as the ability to work with others, solve problems, and go the extra mile. Given how essential computer and quality skills are to getting and keeping a job in today's technology-driven and service-based economy, these are critical training innovations.

SHORTENING people's transitions between jobs is a daunting task. Effective strategies and systems to ease these transitions will benefit millions of Americans who find themselves neither working at a permanent job nor unemployed, but in the gray area in between.

American workers need all the help they can get in using transition time not as "down time," but as a time to gain skills and connections to move up a career ladder. The kinds of skills development, work experience, and job placement provided by the temporary-help industry offers an important guide for workers, trainers, and policymakers.

*Frank Doyle is former executive vice president of General Electric and chairman of Jobs for the Future and the Committee for Economic Development. Hilary Pennington is president of Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit organization based in Boston.

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