When I was in high school I landed my first holiday job working at a small J.C. Penney's. Most of the time I was scheduled to work after school until about 9 p.m. I soon dubbed it as "The Dead Zone."
There usually weren't a lot of customers during those hours, and all the stocking had been done during the day. This left me with long hours to be bored spitless, staring at double-polyester peach pantsuits and trying to look busy while doing it.
One night I started re-dressing all the mannequins in clothes I liked better. I re-arranged displays and started throwing away broken supplies.
I did that several times when things were slow. The mannequins became giant Barbie dolls, their fashions changing several times a week. I organized and cleaned the cash register area just to keep busy and help the hours pass faster.
A couple of weeks later, a manager paid me a visit. He said he had noticed the work I had done and wanted to extend my temporary employment. That was the beginning of a job that helped me pay for college. The store scheduled me whenever I had time after school and gave me full-time work during summer and holiday breaks.
I thought of this job when I began working on a story for my Gannett column on how temporary workers can turn their work into full-time gigs. When I was in high school, I was just bored and wanted to keep busy, but it seems that my strategy was one that experts recommend: work hard, look for problems to solve and show how you contribute to the company's success.
Here's the column:
Employers, still nervous about the health of the economy, have kept their permanent staff numbers lean, but have boosted their number of temporary workers. So, the question is: if you’re a temporary employee, how to you get an employer to hire you on a permanent basis when companies seem in no rush to do so?
“Ask,” says Alexandra Levit, a career expert. “Some people may be hesitant to do so, but you’ve got to ask if there are fulltime opportunities. Otherwise, you’ll never know.”
Levit, author of “New Job, New You” cautions that before such an inquiry you should make sure you’ve been doing a great job at the position you were hired to fill as a temp.
Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys LLC, agrees. “You’ve got to demonstrate that even as a temp, you’re a great fit for the company. Smile, be friendly and treat the job like it’s permanent and you own it. Treating it with respect sends out the right signal.”
The latest unemployment figures for December found that an additional 46,500 temporary workers were added by employers. This continues a trend for the previous month, when more than 50,000 temp workers were added.
Finney and Levit say taking on temporary work can be a good idea for many reasons.
“There are a lot of advantages to being a temp,” says Finney, who has herself been in the temporary worker ranks. “Many people have found out that permanent positions often have only the illusion of stability. You could actually find yourself in a more permanent job by being a full-time temp.”
Levit says that being a temp can fit in perfectly with some lifestyles, such as the baby boomer no longer interested in climbing the corporate ladder and “just wanting to collect a paycheck.”
“However, I wouldn’t recommend being a temporary for a long period for someone in their 20s because of it lacking the earning potential (of a permanent position),” Levit says. “You just have to decide what it is you want out of your job if you decide to temp.”
For companies, hiring temps can cost about 30 percent less than regular workers, mostly because they don’t have to pay for health benefits and unemployment. And while many workers seek permanent jobs specifically to get benefits, Finney says some temp agencies offer benefits, “so that’s not necessarily the only reason you should want to work for an employer fulltime.”
Finney, co-author of “ Unlock the Hidden Job Market,” points out that working as a temp can give someone a unique chance to see if a company and its culture would be “a good fit.”
“Lots of companies turn down job candidates because they say they’re just ‘not a good fit.’ Well, the same can be true of an employer. Being a temp gives you a chance to see if you appreciate their style,” she says.
Levit and Finney say that anyone wanting to try and move from a temporary job into a permanent position with an employer should:
- Make connections. “Even if you’re only there for a day, make sure you send the supervisor a hand-written thank you note, and follow it up with an e-mail. Ask if she might be willing to brainstorm some ideas with you later about how to get your foot in the door,” Finney says.
- Fix what is broken. “Look around and try and see what you can do to make yourself indispensable. How can you help them?” Levit says.
Levit says she knows of one temporary seasonal worker at a furniture store who suggested the way to compete with lower online prices was to attract customers into the store by offering customer events such as peakers offering career advice. “She did more than just man the cash register,” Levit says of the temp.
Levit further suggests talking to other employees “and ask what they’re dealing with right now. Then, figure out how you can help them.”
- Watch the schmooze. “Organizations understand that temps are more than their day job, but don’t reach beyond your job if it doesn’t feel comfortable. The most important thing is to first do your job really well, then you can network,” Levit says.
“Right now, you’re going to have to be patient if you’re a temp,” she adds. “I think employers are going to start hiring more on a permanent basis, but it’s going to take a while.”