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For solo acts, power in numbers

Early this decade, "temping" outgrew its Kelly Girl image.

In 1993, Manpower Inc. muscled past General Motors as the nation's biggest private employer, deploying an army of temporary workers 640,000 strong.

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Temps, usually defined as workers paid by an employment agency, not by the organization where they work, today make up 5 percent of the US work force, labor experts say.

They're joined by "flexible workers" including on-call staff, and independent contractors.

As a group, they're filling many roles. Sure, you can still get a receptionist. But qualified short-term workers can also be plugged into companies at any level.

A survey released last month by Boston-based Aquent (formerly MacTemps Inc.) proclaimed nearly one-quarter of the US work force "independent professionals." It said 4 out 5 IPs had gone solo by choice, and were out-earning traditional "W-2" workers.

If real, the success of those self-directed IPs may have affected the workplace status of their agency-based-temp cousins.

A futurist and author told me in 1994: "The new definition of company loyalty is loyalty to your Rolodex." Sounds like an IP view.

But cost-saving companies have revised the concept of loyalty, too. Many hire as needed from a competitive pool of short-termers. Often they skimp on benefits.

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On that front, agency-based temps now seek to leverage their growing numbers. Workers at Microsoft are looking to organized labor. And short-term workers of all stripes - from assemblers to substitute schoolteachers - will be watching to see how they fare.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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