If you're ever in a transitional period in which you are not working in your career field -- or you don't yet have enough experience to work in your career field -- working temporary gigs through a temporary employment agency can be the best thing that ever happened to you -- and a fantastic way to build your resume to boot.
When you work for a temp agency, you are assigned to go out and do various kinds of work at client companies for varying lengths of time -- as short as a few hours, a few days, a couple of weeks, all the way up to several months or longer. Many temps enjoy this kind of work because it's not the same-old same-old every day.
"I have temped extensively," says Jacquelyn Ormsbee, of Montrose, CO, who formerly temped but now has a permanent job as an office manager/executive assistant for a company that markets digital video recording units to the security industry. "Most of my experiences were great. I like doing temp jobs for the variety and challenge."
Temping gives you valuable experience to list on your resume while keeping paychecks coming in as you continue to seek permanent work in your career field. For college students during summer and semester breaks, temping offers the added advantage of facilitating career exploration. The same applies to career-changers. Anyone with any uncertainty at all about what career to move into can expect to find some answers in temping.
"I learned a lot about companies and job types without a long commitment or search process," Ormsbee says.
At the very least, you may learn what fields you don't want to get into. The best temp agencies can also help you with your resume and counsel you about your career.
Best of all, temping is a terrific networking opportunity because you're working not just in one, but many companies. You rub elbows with all kinds of people who have the opportunity to see what a valuable employee you are. Be prepared to dazzle -- or at least meet -- as many key people in the client companies as possible -- department heads, supervisors, executives, and others with influence.
"When you are temping you meet a lot of people outside your normal sphere of contact," Ormsbee observes. "Many companies do hire temps on a permanent basis but may be even better for referring you to other companies."
Ormsbee offers this great networking tip for those who temp: "Especially when I have worked at longer jobs or felt a good connection with a company, I gave thank you notes to my supervisors when leaving, letting them know what I enjoyed about working with them. Every time I did this, the agency would tell me how happy/impressed the company was with my work. Then the agency would get me better and better jobs."
Karen Hartman, who has done a lot of temping and is currently classified as a temp elementary-education advisor at Purdue University Calumet, suggests this twist on networking through temping. To fashion the best networking opportunities for yourself, become a temping free agent instead of obtaining your assignments through a temporary or staffing agency. "Seek out companies that you want to work with and offer your services on your own to save them time and money with dealing with temp agencies," Hartman advises. "In a temp agency, you will not have a choice of where you are placed. My most successful temp jobs were ones I found on my own resources."
The companies at which you are temporarily assigned -- or assign yourself -- not only offer the possibility that you will gain referrals in your career field, but they can be an end in themselves. Temp agencies report that some 75 percent of people placed in such assignments are offered full-time jobs, writes Jason Rich, author of Job Hunting For The Utterly Confused. "I had one supervisor tell me to contact her if I were ever looking for full-time employment," former temp Devorah Shoal recalls.
For those -- like students -- requiring flexibility in their schedules, temping can be a godsend. In many temping situations, you can work only when you want to. In fact, Shoal describes "the ability to accept or decline work" as one of the most positive aspects of temping.
"Temporary employment gives students flexibility to work around an academic schedule, while earning extra money toward tuition and living expenses," says Richard A. Piske, III, president of Olsten Staffing Services. "At the same time, students can bolster their resumes with actual work experience and assess opportunities for future full-time employment."
One caution about flexibility -- you can turn down assignments, but doing so sometimes decreases your chances of getting other temp gigs. "If you turn down a job, they are less likely to want to place you somewhere else," says Hartman of her own experience.
The types of skills needed vary, but a temp worker's skill set is generally matched with the type of work needed by the client company. Office jobs, for example, require some basic computer/keyboarding skills. Even better than enabling you to keep your skills current, temporary work often gives you the chance to learn new skills. "I could not begin to list the new skills I have gained by temping," says Cecelia Hittle. "I have learned more than any classroom can teach."
In addition to the opportunity to polish typical office skills, such as typing and computer abilities, temping provides a venue for improving the so-called "soft skills." Notes Hittle, "I learned people-interaction skills and organizational skills." Other former temps cite business etiquette and "how to work with difficult personalities."
The temp agency usually evaluates your skills with a series of tests that are fairly simple -- but can be time consuming. One temp described a 2-3-hour battery of tests. The temps we talked to mentioned tests in typing/word processing speed and accuracy, math, spelling, and filing ability. Many temps are tested in specific software applications, such as the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint), as well as Quicken and various other programs, such as databases. Some temps have been given personality tests, dexterity tests, and tests in office procedures.
Training is sometimes available if you come to the temp agency lacking some skills. And, of course, some temps receive on-the-job training when they go out on assignments.
What kinds of assignments can you expect to be sent on if you decide to temp? "I have done the most stupid of assignments to the most glamorous," says Hittle, who recalls that in one temp job, "I was to sit at a desk and do nothing. Do not answer the phones -- nothing." Other types of assignments temps mentioned were receptionist, miscellaneous office help, medical secretary, administrative office work, and waitressing. Shoal notes that all her assignments were administrative-type jobs, "but in a variety of industries - architecture, executive head-hunter agency, HUD agency, a non-profit agency, a legal firm, and database management at a cemetery."
Hartman's temp stints ranged from typing forms to soliciting charge accounts in front of department stores to serving as library clerk for Arthur Andersen and functioning as catering secretary for a big hotel.
Temping is not totally a bed of roses, and some former temps truly despise it. One is Alan Abramowitz, who says, "Temp agencies are meat markets in New York City and have always been. Last month they set me up at Channel 13 (PBS) but failed to inform them and probably exaggerated my capabilities. Needless to say, my assignment ended prematurely."
The assignments can sometimes be dull. Temps, according to Ormsbee are sometimes given "extremely boring work that no one else wants to do; once I spent a whole week putting records onto microfiche."
Ormsbee, who says she would recommend temping to others, adds the caveat, "I think it takes a certain personality or work-style to enjoy it. I have friends who ABHOR working temp jobs. I think you need to enjoy the challenge and change of temping."
"For those who crave variety and enjoy new situations," Shoal says, "this is definitely the way to go."
Read more about the Pros and Cons of Temping.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.