Temporary Insanity

"Temping can... be a good option for recent college graduates unsure about career direction or unable to get started because they lack solid experience.""Learning the Benefits of Temping" The New York Times Feb. 16, 1997The proposition that temping is a viable start to a professional career is a great and cruel lie. What is a temp job if not a uniquely heartless form of torture visited upon people who don't have a real job? Yet the entire stinking metropolitan New York area teems with commitment-wary hordes who stream through staffing offices every day, looking for work, waiting for work, being measured and evaluated for work -- the lucky ones scurrying with introduction slip in hand to a silent office tower to report for temporary duty. What follows is very much a cautionary tale. Yes, temping is an easy option for a recent college graduate to collect a decent steady paycheck. But it is also a slippery slope into a professional nightmare.When I moved to New York City, I didn't have much of a life strategy. That is, I had no idea just how I would pay for my life: for my cramped Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, for groceries, electricity, cable TV...you get the picture. I had quit my job shucking oysters at an upscale seafood eatery in northwest Washington, D.C., to move north in search of Substantive Work. New York: there, anything could happen, any dream might be realized, a million opportunities waiting to be seized in whichever field I chose. If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere... right? I had to know.In soliciting advice from various acquaintances, I learned that temping might just be the perfect way for me to start out. "I had a friend," a friend of a friend told me over lunch one day, "who was intent on working for Nike. So she found out which company sent temps over to Nike, and she went to them and eventually, she ended up getting a job at Nike. You should definitely try that."Temping? I was put off by the idea. I had spent a few weeks in Washington as a temp (before the steady shucking gig). In addition to writing freelance, I was interviewing around town with various media outlets, and I didn't really want to tie myself down with time-sucking steady work.My first job was at the National Association of Police Chiefs, and it wasn't all that bad. I was presented with a pile of about 100 surveys and directed to coalesce them into a single coherent sheet of data. After a few hours of tabulating, 60 minutes for lunch, and an afternoon of typing up a tidy little report, I proudly displayed the results of my completed task to my supervisor-for-a-day. He responded graciously; in fact, he had figured the task would take two days' time, as he informed me regrettably that I needn't come back the next day. Hidden lesson No. 1: When you're a temp, no need to work efficiently. Little is expected of you but that your ass fills an empty seat. For your employer, anything above and beyond that is generally a bonus. He asked me for a rŽsumŽ "in case anything permanent ever opens up; we liked your work." I strode out of the office with a broad smile, having done my chores well. Even so (to my relief), the police chiefs never called.My next experience with temp culture was at the Smithsonian Institution. I was called to a small room at the Museum of American History to join five fellow rented employees to prepare for a fund-raising Smithsonian anniversary bash. Our job was to prepare the bag of party goodies each guest would receive upon arriving, containing several pieces of Smithsonian literature, which we were to assemble with aplomb. The gala was sponsored by a certain brand of upscale bourbon whiskey; they had provided several cases of airplane-sampler-sized bottles for distribution to the party guests. My job was to take a piece of cardboard from a formidable pile, make the correct folds (A meets B, tab C fits into slot D) and transform it into a jewelry-box-sized display carton for the tiny vessel. Then place the bottle inside. Then close it up, insert into plastic bag. Then repeat. Fifteen hundred times over two complete 9-to-5 days. It started to make my brain hurt after 15 minutes. It was after this debacle that I escaped to a steady job behind the raw bar.I had seen the spectrum of what the temp world had to offer, I thought, so I received my friend's friend's advice with some skepticism. At best, I figured, my brain would be occupied with unfulfilling tasks for nine bucks an hour. At worst, the sweat of my brow would be exploited for about the same price. Neither were appealing; I resolved that, once I reached the City, I would find myself the steady, worthy employ that I felt I deserved, and quickly, too. Weren't there thousands of employers in the largest city in the world just dying for bright potential employees like me? Were there?When I moved into my apartment I made sure to arrange my room with computer and printer. This was my work station. "Resumes with cover letters will flow from this room like a mighty river," I vowed. And they did. But, there was the inevitable downtime waiting for a response. The rent, the groceries, the electric bills, cable TV bills all needed to be paid. My savings were dwindling (read: What savings?) and it was time for me to start cashing paychecks."Flexible work arrangements... afford employees flexibility, independence, supplemental income, skills training, 'safety net' protection while between permanent jobs -- and an opportunity to find permanent work.from "Flexible Employment: Positive Work Strategies for the 21stCentury"Edward E. Lenz, Journal of Labor Research I began my search for temporary work at Mademoiselle Personnel Network. I called up the phone number listed fortuitously in the "Employment" section of the Sunday New York Times classified section because their ad had mentioned opportunities in publishing. Oh yeah, I was all over that. Woke up early that Monday morning and took the 6 train downtown to the offices on East 40th Street, wearing jacket and tie, copies of my rŽsumŽ in hand. I made sure to take a shower that morning in case the agency was careful enough to check behind my ears. I walked in, explained to the receptionist that I was looking for work (surely she hadn't heard that one before), and as she handed me a clipboard with an application attached, she asked me for my passport. Surely I wasn't going to be transferred overseas. No, this was merely a necessary bureaucratic step in the process, to ensure my legal eligibility for a Paycheck. But despite my pleadings -- I look American, don't I? I don't even have an accent! -- I was referred to a flier provided to idiots like myself: "PLEASE BE ADVISED -- Upon Registration, You Must Possess Two (2) Pieces of State Valid Identification for Company Application! The Primary I.D. Must Have a Photo. NO Interview Will Be Done Without Them!! As requested by the State, Identification is necessary for any legal purposes. Thank you for your cooperation!" My driver's license alone would not do. So I turned around, went home and sulked, then went to sleep early to arise for another trek to the offices of Mademoiselle. I laid my passport by my pillow. Upon my return with proper ID Friday morning, I was allowed to complete an application: standard stuff like name, address, education, past convictions, work experience. Work experience: hmmm... I wrote down my job at the restaurant, as well as my last two post-graduate internships (there were three slots) and hoped that would do. The receptionist took the clipboard when I was done and advised me to take a seat in the waiting area, where I would wait for my skills testing. The waiting area is a depressing place, full of wannabe professionals: women in their only business outfits, young men in cheap suits and leatherette attaches. Most lounged on the magenta vinyl couches that ringed the office walls, waiting through their various stages of the temp life cycle. Some were still struggling to complete the application, some were staring nervously at their fingernails, like me, waiting to be called for their computer test. Others were there for a longer haul; they were the floaters, people who had not been assigned to a job but had shown up at the office anyway, hoping that work would materialize before the morning was out. Reading a newspaper or staring up at the TV screens around the office, these are desperate souls who sit around praying that someone, somewhere, calls in sick to work so that they might be useful to someone.Still, these waiting rooms are the tollbooths onto the great corporate highway. Fortune magazine rhapsodized that "the growth and increasing sophistication of the temporary-employment industry is creating a national trading floor for talent." This here was ground zero -- here are the human resources waiting to be bought up, eager to man a cog in the giant machinery of big business. And I was not alone. The rent-a-body business is booming; temping is becoming the new international slave trade. Companies like Kelly Services and Manpower International yearly each hire out more than 750,000 marginally skilled workers nationwide in a wide variety of disciplines: law, engineering, the sciences. MacTemps, a more specialized firm that finds work for Macintosh experts, sends computer techies out from some 41 centers across the globe; in addition to Stamford, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they can find you work in Paris, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, or Schaumburg, Ill. Mademoiselle, with its four other locations in White Plains, Great Neck, Newark and Morristown, N.J. ("In the past year," Mademoiselle's literature trumpeted, "we are pleased to report the processing of over 35,000 W-2 forms"), seems to make a profitable business trafficking in warm bodies. Like mine.My quick reprieve came as I was ushered into the Computer Room to measure my word processing aptitude. Having spent four years of essay-writing through college, I was not worried about my Microsoft Word skills. I breezed through that test; it was all elementary stuff like "Open the document MEMO.1" and "Move the selected text to line 34." I was given two chances to get each question right. It was a breeze. The typing test was more nerve-wracking. I was set up with a typewritten page full of motivational garbage -- "Mark Twain once said that he could live an entire week on a compliment. We must treat our customers the same way..." -- and was told to type as much of it as I could within five minutes. I could not go back to correct my work. I got two three-minute warm-ups. Hands shaking, I tanked the test, allowing a litany of misspellings, but came up with a still (I thought) respectable 45 words per minute.A tip for aspiring temp workers: I found that every staffing firm uses the exact same motivational screed in testing prospective temps' typing speeds. Through what bizarre arrangement this is, I'm not sure, but you would do well to get yourself a copy of it. By the fourth time I went to take the test, I was up to almost 60 wpm. After a few minutes back in the waiting room ( Home Alone 2 was on the TV), I was ushered in to see my "temp counselor," a pretty young woman named Carrie who surveyed my test scores with a critical eye. She quizzed me on my education, my work experience, what exactly I wanted to do with my life. I told her I was interested in publishing, explained I was looking for a permanent job. She understood. I bonded with her, I thought, and she convinced me that she would work hard for me. In fact, she said, there was an advertising firm downtown that needed a temp to man the phones for the afternoon. Was I interested? It wasn't in my field of interest, she knew, but it was just for the afternoon, and hey, it was work. I had no plans, so I agreed and climbed back on the subway. Arriving at the 40th-floor offices of Berenter Greenhouse, I found the woman who had requested my services. She sat me down at the front desk with the receptionist, who was running late to catch a plane to Chicago to spend Christmas with her boyfriend's family. She hurriedly explained that the holiday party was that afternoon, most of the office would be gone within the next hour, and all I would really need to do was to send callers into the right voice mailbox. She conducted a short lesson on the phone system, let me watch as she took a few calls, and then waltzed off to the Windy City."A recent Census Bureau study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that employers have lost confidence in the ability of the American education system to prepare young people for the workplace." from "Flexible Employment: Positive Work Strategies for the 21st Century"I graduated college. I got mostly A's in high school. But no part of my schooling prepared me for what unfolded. Without warning, around 3 o'clock, the switchboard lit up with people anxious to complete their business before the weekend. I knew exactly one member of the firm, and nobody really seemed to want to talk to her. I found out quickly that answering phones is not as damned easy as it looks. People were escaping down the elevator, and their names were a mystery to me. I was terrified. Panicked. "Holdplease. Holdplease. Holdplease. Berenter Greenhouse and Warbler canIhelpyou?" Then I would need to punch 5-9-9-ext.-2 and the caller gets voice mail; there were a dozen people appearing in my ear, huffing, "Uh, I just called and I got cut off," and one guy who got particularly irate, completely unappreciative of my position as a last-minute temporary employee, yelling at me to "find someone who knows what's going on!" Everyone who knows anything is already drunk, dancing on the bar at the party, and thank you very much for pointing out my flimsy grasp on precisely what is going on in general.This is the curse of the Temp. You will be expected to learn scores of names in minutes, expected to be unflappable and quick to understand. Don't ask a lot of questions, because you're only here for a short while and there's going to be someone else here permanently once you're gone. Him, we'll train. It's not worth getting to know the other people in the office; before you know it, you're down the street trying to build a relationship with another temporary supervisor. And don't complain about the workload; you're an interchangeable part, a faceless servant picked off a pile to serve at the whimsy of a busy master who doesn't know you and doesn't care to.But I did make it home that evening, had the weekend to recover before I showed up at Mademoiselle Monday morning for another assignment. Carrie had something a little juicer for me this time; I was to gain entrance to the publishing empire of Conde Nast -- at women's fashion glossy mag Allure. Less than ideal. I was replacing an editorial assistant on vacation; she had done most of her work before she left, and I found that my responsibilities amounted to about 2.475 tasks per day. I dispatched those efficiently, with few problems. I was directed to clip the gossip columns from the New York Post and the Daily News for presentation to the assistant editor I worked under, and to open her mail, presumably to forestall for her the worrisome hazard of paper cuts. I answered her phone, and assisted anyone who might have needed an extra pair of hands.The good thing about this job was the computer; I got to surf the Internet during the downtime. After finishing my abbreviated duties, I spent most of my mornings on ESPNet Sportszone keeping up with the goings-on in the hockey world. Hidden lesson No. 2: Computer access is the standard by which assignments should be judged. I was trying my damnedest to stay awake through varying degrees of hangover; it couldn't bode well for my future assignments if it was said about me that I was caught asleep on the job. I fairly leapt up with excitement the time I was asked to help address a stack of Christmas cards by one of the other assistants. It seemed like the perfect job. Not too much to do, cash that $11-per-hour check and come back for more. But the problem was this: I have no place at a fashion mag. It would be nice to go along on the model shoots, but there seems no reason to bring the temp along for those. Fucking around on the Web is nice, but I would much rather be bored on my couch in front of my cable TV. Come 5 o'clock FINALLY, that's exactly what I went to do. Funny thing how much all that websurfing makes you REALLY tired.I went next to House & Garden magazine, another editorial assistant's job, another computer, even less to do, considering that my nominal boss spent one day in the office that week. I had a cubicle to myself. I remember mostly that the House & Garden website was chock full of household tips and lots of great recipes. This was my favorite: MARINATED SALMON SEARED IN A PEPPER CRUST 2 tablespoons soy sauce1 garlic clove, pressed in a garlic press or minced and mashed to a paste2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice1 teaspoon sugar3/4 pound center-cut salmon fillet, skinned and halved 4 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper 2 tablespoons olive oilIn a sealable plastic bag combine well the soy sauce, the garlic, the lemon juice, and the sugar, add the salmon, coating it well, and let it marinate, sealed and chilled, for 30 minutes. Remove the salmon from the bag, discarding the marinade, pat it dry, and press 2 teaspoons of the pepper onto each piece of salmon, coating it thoroughly. In a heavy skillet heat the oil over moderately high heat until it is hot but not smoking and in it sautŽ the salmon for 2 minutes on each side, or until it just flakes. Transfer the salmon with a slotted spatula to paper towels and let it drain for 30 seconds.That salmon was really good. This was also the week that I started a letter-writing campaign to The New York Times. I was never published. Hidden lesson No. 3: There are no Projects for the Temp. This is exactly what is required of you: Show up at 9 a.m. Yearn for 5 p.m. Go home. Repeat. I sorted some mail there, too. Once I figured out where to deliver it all, my week there was done, and I went home wondering where I would be on Monday.Then I was somehow bounced back to the exciting world of women's fashion. Mademoiselle Personnel sent me to Mademoiselle magazine. I noted above that the fashion mag wasn't my thing, really, but the interviews were coming slowly. I lacked the motivation to write cover letters after a day of psychological temp torture. Just what I needed after a day of humbling myself as an indentured servant and then finding job rejection letters in the mail -- to abject myself even further applying for jobs. There are no happy temps. Oh, there were a few who hoped to shine at some fleeting assignment and attract a job offer. But most of the kindred office-nomads I talked to were busy dreaming of something else. Many were musicians, artists, writers who had resigned themselves to the Temp Life for now. The rest were 'tweeners like me, attempting to look for a job. But the work wore on me, leaving me good for little else. Meanwhile, I was dependent on the steady paycheck, hooked on the mainline temp money and able to aspire to little more. I occupied a desk in the advertising department at Mademoiselle. Its former occupant had been promoted to assist the publisher; the magazine was looking for a replacement. My responsibility was to cater to three of the sales representatives. All of them had proposals to be faxed, incoming calls to be answered, letters to be typed, travel to be arranged, sales figures to be tabulated, and -- this was the first time as a temp I was asked to do this -- coffee to be fetched. With every step, I needed to turn to someone around me to ask a question; my method would be to latch onto the one assistant whose name I knew and ask her all my questions until I learned another name. Then I would exhaust her, and on and on until they were all sick of me. It really was no sweat off my back to piss my co-workers off now and again. They would be rid of me in no time. I can honestly say that I liked some of the people I worked with, but I didn't spend a second getting to know any of them. This is the life of a transient: make no connections that you aren't willing to break.All of them had good reason to do their jobs well; they were investing time in their work so that they might eventually move up in the company. Their heels were all dug in firmly on the corporate hill. They were busy building allies (kissing ass) and developing positive reputations (working their butts off). For the Temp, the carrot just wasn't there. Though it was kinda cool as the only male there, I wasn't going anywhere at Mademoiselle. I was short-term. All that remained was the stick -- it was a shitload of work. At the very least, I was allowed to buy myself a snack on the boss when I fetched her coffee. Hidden lesson No. 4: Limited amounts of ass-kissing can be worthwhile. By the end of the week, Human Resources had found a suitable person to fill my chair. I got the call from Carrie on Friday; I was preparing to continue next week. I notified my "superiors": "Wow, just when we figured you were beginning to get what goes on around here. Well, good luck with everything." I was, again, gone.I took Monday off. I had an interview with a company that published CD-ROMs. I thought it went well, and I was told that I would be notified in a few days about the job, yea or nay. That very evening, I got a call from Carrie. She had a job for me at the Classic Sports Network. I jumped; all this time working for women's magazines had really skewed me. I was ready to do men's work, like archive videotape footage of the last 25 NBA Finals, crap like that. It would be FUN, I told her. There was a catch: she needed a three-month commitment, could I guarantee the 90 days? Well, I explained, I had this interview, and I might just get this job tomorrow. I would take it, I said, but I would really like to give Classic Sports a shot. She replied that she would look really bad if the person she placed there flaked out; her ass was on the line here, and if I couldn't commit, then I really shouldn't do it. Lesson No. 5: This is a well-practiced tactic among temp placement people. You might not care if Big Personnel Corporation gets screwed when you don't show up for work, but if poor, hard-working Carrie will be in trouble, you'll make sure you get there, just for her, because she's doing her best for her, and you don't want to make her look bad. Always remember, the temp agencies are big companies in their own right. Screw them as you would anyone else. I foolishly told her that I couldn't do it; I was holding out for the CD-ROM job. They never called back. And, despite my apparent deference to her best interests, Carrie never called back either. The labor situation for temp workers has improved vastly over the last few years. Companies are finally offering medical plans, dental plans, vacation pay. Terry Kelly, of Sound Temporaries in White Plains, N.Y., told me that "this is something that firms need to do to be competitive. It's a very tight market. In order to attract a qualified applicant, you need to offer a competitive benefits package." Sound Temps does not offer coverage themselves; it is something that employees are encouraged to purchase on their own from an affiliated vendor. MacTemps is one of the firms responsible, in part, for the revolution in the temp business. "MacTemps set the trend for nationwide benefits," Teryl O'Keefe of MacTemps told me. "The whole concept of temping is changing. People are taking their skills and moving from company to company on a project-by-project basis."MacTemps takes its specially skilled workers and rewards them, offering health, disability and dental insurance after only 300 hours of work over a 10-week period. It also provides child care. Work 500 hours over a year's time? Sign up for the 401k plan. Work 1,500 hours? You've got paid vacation time coming to you. Need to keep abreast of the latest software? Sign up for an intensive tutorial, free of charge. "We look at it as another benefit," sang O'Keefe. MacTemps even will offer special training sessions to train its temps for specific clients' needs; GE Capital in Stamford is an example of a company with very specific, high-end needs for whom MacTemps has conducted special ed. "It's a real cost burden to us, but for us the positives outweigh the negatives," she said. "The trend in the temp industry is for more specialized skills." But those without computer designing super-abilities, specialized accounting skills, nursing know-how -- something above that general liberal arts education -- may be stuck. The average street-sweeping, girl-Friday temp agencies are a bit slower to follow MacTemps' lead. The average non-permanent secretarial engineer will not be offered gratuitous computer classes; most tutorials will come with an outlay of time and expense by the employee. Nor will that average temp receive benefits in any timely fashion. Mademoiselle's offering is easily less generous than the MacTemps package. Medical coverage comes after 500 logged hours of work (that's 12 1/2 40-hour weeks). For dental, it's 1,000 hours (25 weeks). These benefits won't actually get to you until about two months later, Mademoiselle told me.But my steady stream of employment dried up after about six weeks with Mademoiselle. I was again completely adrift. I spent the rest of the week registering with other temp agencies, figuring that one or another would be able to provide work when I needed it. I had expected to need to file with more than one firm in order to keep those paychecks coming. But I was missing medical insurance. Once I started mixing up agencies, my hope for insurance was shot; one week here and one week there equals nothing that amounts to much. If you're not committing your life to the firm, then they're likely to cut you loose before you back your way into a medical package."People like temping because of the independence, the freedom and they're removed from office politics...">Teryl O'Keefe, MacTempsI landed at the end of the week at Forrest Edwards. There, Gail had a proposition for me: I could go to work over at the Bettmann Archives. It was tangentially related to publishing; the archives is in essence a huge lending library that sends off photos of just about everything to magazines, newspapers and book publishers for a fee. I wandered into the returns department. Along with about a half-dozen permanent co-workers, I gathered up the photos that were returned to Bettmann. I ripped open the return envelopes, took a library-style hand-held bar-code scanner, and entered each photograph into the archaic computer system. I did this starting at 9 every morning and continued, with a one-hour lunch break, until 5 every day. Hidden lesson No. 6: In the absence of a computer, find yourself a hobby. There were interesting pictures; my secret diversion was to snatch images I thought were interesting and spirit them over to the copy machine to make facsimiles for myself.After my first week there, I asked Gail what the situation was. She told me that my employers there were happy with my work, and why don't I continue there for now? I was replacing a woman who was out on maternity leave. Sharon, the pleasantly large Jamaican woman who sat next to me, seemed to like me a whole lot better than her absent colleague. When I didn't understand something, she would explain in her patois-soaked English and leave me alone to complete the task at hand. I would quietly pretend to do my duties, and work hard at not really distinguishing myself in any way. There was no reason for the nose to come near the grindstone. Bettmann couldn't fire me if I goofed around now and again; technically, I was not their employee. The pile of returned photos was literally never-ending; we were always sufficiently behind that we were logging in returns from three days earlier. It was like some unknown level of hell dreamed up by Bill Gates in a feverish nightmare, a perpetual ride on an office hamster wheel. One week became two, which became three and four. There was less and less chance of escape. I was still resistant to socializing with my co-workers. By then, I could absolutely go a full day at work without speaking to one person. That means all my socializing would necessarily come after-hours. I had to fulfill that basic human need, making up for wasted daytime hours by carousing nightly. I was regularly coming into work on six, five hours of sleep, or less. This did not contribute to my effectiveness. When I did have an interview to run to -- there were several -- there were few complaints (my pay was docked for those). My job was not unique. In fact, I knew the least about what was going on. It would have been nice to hear a complaint, to be told I was needed, but I realized that the world of Bettmann could get along well without me. Yet I still had to go back every day and give my eight hours, chained to that desk. I was terrified to leave, lest my income lapse from another week without work. There were people in an office above midtown Manhattan making money from my misery. I did not get health insurance, sick days, days off, nor an ounce of satisfaction from what I was doing. There are no happy-hours-after-work-with-the-gang for the Temp. The Temp is a transient gang of one, doing the shitty jobs that someone else doesn't want to do. Alone, one of solitary millions scattered in every big city in the world, indentured servants to Corporate America. Eventually, I was rescued (by the editor of this paper, incidentally). But others are not so lucky. Take this caution with you: If you are not careful, temping will crush your spirit. If you are looking for a job, there are hundreds of things that you can do to raise money and pass the time. Work nights at a restaurant. Volunteer your body for a scientific study. Play the stock market. Drive a taxi. Go back for more schooling. Rob a bank. Move back home with the parents. Sell your clothes. The temp world will suppress your ambition, your drive, steal your resolve. Do not make the mistake I did. >PQ: You will be expected to learn scores of names in minutes, expected to be unflappable and quick to understand. Don't ask a lot of questions, because you're only here for a short while and there's going to be someone else here permanently once you're gone. Him, we'll train. >PQ: There are no happy temps. Oh, there were a few who hoped to shine at some fleeting assignment and attract a job offer. But most of the kindred office-nomads I talked to were busy dreaming of something else. >PQ: Temping is like some unknown level of hell dreamed up by Bill Gates in a feverish nightmare, a perpetual ride on an office hamster wheel. >PQ: The Temp is a transient gang of one, doing the shitty jobs that someone else doesn't want to do. Alone, one of solitary millions scattered in every big city in the world, indentured servants to Corporate America.


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