Professional Temporary Workers on the Rise


Mention temporary workers and most people think low skill, low wage jobs, but increasingly temporary work arrangements are found in an unexpected place: professions.

Adjunct professors, lawyers who work on a contractual basis, and doctors who work through temp agencies in an arrangement known as “locum tenens” are all technically temporary workers.

They may be highly skilled and well paid, but they do not have the job security that used to be a given in professions.

According to Pam Tolbert, Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University, the number of professionals working on a temporary or contractual basis is on the rise.

“When people think of temp workers they think of blue collar, house cleaners, contractors, etc., but in fact the phenomenon is much more pervasive and growing,” Tolbert said.

The increased use of temporary workers points to a change in the way businesses and organizations are operating. 

If temporary work arrangements are becoming more common and acceptable in the most respected and highest paid professions, what does that mean for everyone else?

Tolbert gave the example of adjunct professors. Adjunct professors may teach and do research at one institution for years, but they are not eligible for tenure. 

In academia, tenure is a permanent position that is designed to encourage academic freedom because a professor cannot lose his job for researching a contentious issue.

It is a coveted and increasingly rare status. According to Tolbert, 40 to 50 percent of faculty at some institutions are now adjunct. 

Likewise, according to a 2008 study by StaffCare, a staffing agency that fills temporary position in the medical industry, spending on temp doctors increased by 20 percent from 2006-2007. 

Law firms often hire lawyers to work on a contractual basis. They work on one case, or a series of cases, but once the project ends, there is no guarantee of future employment.

There is no doubt that these professional jobs are well paid, but they often lack an array of social benefits that come with a long-term employee/employer relationship.

“Since most of the social benefits that we have operate through organizations; unemployment insurance, health care, retirement, a temporary worker has none of these benefits,” Tolbert said.

Most importantly, they lack security.

According to a multi-generational survey of professionals done by Accountemps, one of the world’s largest professional staffing agencies, job security is what employees want most, especially after this most recent recession.

“One thing the recession has shown us is that generations are not that different when it comes to the workplace,” the report states. “Baby boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers share a common desire for stability, more money and healthcare — all elements of a secure future.” 

In the survey of 1,400 professionals, “working for a stable company” and “ having a strong sense of job security” were the top two aspects workers valued most.

Logically, Accountemps encourages employers to offer these benefits as a way to attract and retain the best employees. However, nationwide, the trend toward temporary workers seems to be on the rise across all industries.

“Limited-term employment arrangements have become an integral recession strategy for many firms,” said Tolbert.

Unintended Consequences

Most people see temp workers as way companies can get around the expense of providing social benefits. 

Companies may use temporary employees in an effort to save money, but according to Tolbert, there may be some unexpected consequences.

In a 2011 study of British workers, Tolbert and her colleagues found that the presence of temporary staff in an office had a negative effect on the morale of regular employees. 

The study found that, “having temporary workers in their occupational group reduces standard workers’ job satisfaction and organizational loyalty – attitudes that have been linked to increased absenteeism, turnover and other negative behaviors.”

According to Tolbert, employers seeking to save money by hiring temporary employees should first consider the financial implications of a less satisfied, and therefore, less efficient, worker.




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