A New Class of Worker: Permanent Temps

There are nearly 16M people searching for jobs and just under 4M jobs posted online right now.  Needless to say, we need a few more jobs.  The good news is that more jobs are slowly beginning to open up (Evidence: More jobs posted online, unemployment holding at 10%, unemployment claims up only 36).  The bad news is that many of the jobs are part-time and/or temporary.

In fact, 18.4M people currently work part-time jobs, either because they can’t find full-time work or because they prefer it.  13.2 percent of all workers work fewer than 35 hours, 7.4% are independent contractors, and 2.9% are temp workers.  Depending on where you stand on part-time jobs–frustrated but coping or loving the flexibility–you’ll either love or hate this emerging trend.

Rise of the Permanent Temp

Due to economic and political conditions, many employers are inventing and embracing a new category of workers, permanent temps, or perma-temps.  The category cuts across a wide swath of career fields and industries, and the perma-temp status is not limited to entry-level workers.  Many companies have begun to hire temporary executives–CFOs, VPs of Marketing, even CEOs in small organizations.

No, hiring temp executives is not new; companies have often made interim hires or hires to cover absences.  But, this is something different.  A quick review of any online job board will demonstrate that employers are entering new frontiers in terms of the way they hire, pay and relate to executives.  One recent job listing read “Director of HR”.  The job description seemed like standard fare until the end.  At the bottom of the job description where you might expect to see a list of benefits and maybe pay information, the employer states “The compensation is dependent upon experience and commensurate with overall success of the growth of our firm. The hours are flexible and will vary from week to week dependent on the volume of business”.

What?  Not so long ago, an HR Director could expect to be sitting pretty with a good salary, a flexible work arrangement, and the knowledge that, if the company bottomed out, s/he would likely be one of the last to go (someone’s got to hand out the pink slips, send COBRA forms and respond to unemployment claims).

Another job listing sought a VP, Marketing to work on a project-by-project basis.  And, still another sought a case manager to “affiliate with the firm…as a member of it’s network of designers, case managers and operations managers“.

Factoring in job descriptions from these and other job listings, a perma-temp is a contract or contingent worker whose compensation, hours and duration of employment depend on the business needs and financial performance of their employer.

Welcome to a brave new world of work.

Life in the Land of the Perma-Temps

So, is being a perma-temp a bad thing?  Only if you care about having an annual (predictable) salary, health benefits or a modicum of job security.  The shaky state of the recovery, new state and local legislation requiring employers to provide benefits to more workers, and the possibility of federal healthcare legislation,  some employers are getting creative with their staffing.  The recession taught them that workers desperate to keep or land a job will accept a menagerie of work arrangements to stay employed.  During the thick of the recession, full-time, regular workers agreed (voluntarily or involuntarily) to reduced pay, shorter workweeks, job-sharing, longer holidays, unpaid personal days, part-time, contract and freelance arrangements.  These arrangements made it possible for employers to flex staff up and down depending on their weekly/monthly/quarterly fortunes.

Now that employers have drank from this spring, don’t expect them to dive back into the ocean willingly.  Creating perma-temps affords companies access to highly skilled professionals and laborers alike.  Employers pay highly-skilled professionals will earn higher fees than unskilled laborers, but they, too, must pay for their own benefits and, depending on the arrangement, taxes.

Not unlike the old world of work, highly-skilled professionals with the most sought after skills will earn the highest fees and be able to jump from assignment to assignment.  They will also likely find plenty of temp agencies and professional staffing firms willing to help them find their next assignment, for a fee.  Low-skilled or unskilled workers will have to acquire new skills, not the least of which will be business development or selling skills to line up their next assignments and money management skills to budget their money through feast-famine cycles.

Workers in all fields will have to learn to think and live like freelancers–always looking for their next gig–as employers like Boeing, Sutter Health, Macy’s, Wal-Mart (Corporate), and state governments, colleges, and advertising firms hire more perma-temps.

What else can perma-temps expect?  Here’s a quick list.


  • Unpredictable compensation
  • Offer letters replaced by contracts (with end dates, scope of work and “you are not an employee of…”)
  • Everything’s Negotiable (pay, hours, scope of work)
  • Need for top-notch marketing and sales skills (Gecko: “Always be closing”)
  • Flexibility
  • Variety/Challenge
  • Paying for his/her own benefits
  • Paying for his/her own vacation, sick days
  • Changing work environments (clients’ office today, home office tomorrow)
  • Constantly updating resumes, certifications, portfolios

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