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Staffing Management: Skilled Temps Step In
 

Carole Fleck  4/1/2008

Vol. 1. No. 2

A new breed of contingent workers is helping companies increase productivity and control costs.

Deb Peterson, vice president of organizational development at Acsys Inc., doesn’t panic when her company’s special projects call for temporary help from skilled professionals. She simply turns to staffing agency Sapphire Technologies.

Recently, Acsys, an interactive media company in Farmington, Conn., with 40 regular staffers, needed an IT professional to work on a six-month web development project, and, through Sapphire, Peterson found a senior Internet developer who sparkled.

“He had such an acute business acumen that we put him in front of a client and he provided technical resolution and guidance,” says Peterson. “He was exceptional and understood the business connection we had with the client.”

A growing number of companies, both small and large, are relying more on contingent employees to optimize business conditions, increase flexibility and control costs. According to the Alexandria, Va.-based American Staffing Association (ASA), staffing companies employed a record-breaking 2.96 million temporary and contract workers in 2006.

Workers with professional skills are driving that trend. Slightly more than half of all temporary positions in U.S. businesses are in the professional sector, from executives and managers to accountants and scientists. The U.S. Department of Labor has declared that temporary work is moving from almost exclusively lower-skilled jobs to positions that require education or specialized training.

“Using professionals [in contingent positions] is a fairly new concept,” says Linda Stewart, founder and CEO of EPOCH, a staffing agency in Boston that specializes in placing financial services professionals. But, she notes, it’s catching on: “You’ll see a lot more of these brokered relationships.”

Everybody Wins

Done right, contingent assignments can benefit both the company and the temporary hire.

Short-term work arrangements appeal to company leaders for different reasons. “If you’re talking to a CEO, it’s all about business results: You’re accelerating business initiatives with people who have done this before someplace else,” says Richard Wahlquist, chief executive officer of the ASA. “To a CFO, the economics are compelling: You’re controlling costs, you’re not carrying ongoing costs, and you’re not paying benefits.”

Robert P. Badavas, president and chief executive officer of TAC Worldwide, a staffing agency specializing in IT and engineering positions with headquarters in Dedham, Mass., estimates that using temporary workers eliminates “the normal 30 percent or so ‘benefits burden’ for a full-time employee.”

Also eliminated are severance costs associated with letting regular staff go. In the case of a recession or layoff, “contingent employees are not evident or counted on the books as reduction-in-force employees might be. This allows for a continued positive image for the company in light of the circumstances,” Badavas says.

The upshot is that businesses get the expertise they need for short-term special projects without incurring the costs of employing regular full-time workers.

Temporary work arrangements can benefit workers as well. Just ask Agapito Soto, a technology consultant at the Orange County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department. Soto, 54, retired from the Marines in 1995 and drifted in and out of the workforce for nearly a decade. Frustrated, he turned to a staffing agency and landed his current temporary position, which he has held for four years.

Soto handles the tech support and the deployment of equipment at disaster sites, from landslides to fires, to make sure police and rescue officials are able to communicate with each other. “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing,” he says.

Last year, Soto was named the National Staffing Employee of the Year by the ASA. “It was unexpected,” he says of the award. “I felt I was doing my job, and to have recognition for that [is] an honor. I hope to be here indefinitely.”

Help Staffing Agencies Help You

Successful temporary work arrangements don’t happen by accident, however. If companies don’t put in some work on the front end, such arrangements may be disastrous.

Peterson says that before Acsys found its top-notch senior Internet developer, it had to let another temporary worker go after four weeks. “He was not communicative and operated more in a silo. It didn’t work out at all,” she says.

So how can companies find solid performers on a temporary basis?

“There’s no magic well,” Wahlquist admits. The best candidates come from word-of-mouth referrals from people in the same line of work, he says.

Absent referrals, temporary staffing agencies can help. Although they typically source talent from the general labor pool, some firms serve niche or narrow markets, Wahlquist notes.

In most cases, he says, staffing agencies will send candidates who are ready to work on day one. But it’s critical that the business is exceptionally clear about its project-specific need so the staffing agency can select the right worker.

“It’s a good idea to have the staffing company visit the worksite and get a sense of the job description,” he says. “The more information a client can provide to a staffing company, the higher degree of probability the match will be accurate between the need and the fulfillment.”

Interview and Investigate

As they do with regular employees, companies may want to interview and screen temporary workers. In fact, EPOCH’s Stewart recommends it, “to make sure they’ll be a good fit.”

At Acsys, candidates are screened first in a telephone interview and asked questions like, “How do you approach your work using certain technologies?” Those who pass muster are brought into the workplace for a round of in-person interviews. After the company has a sense of what the candidate is looking for and what his or her experience is, “the tech department director does a drilldown in [the candidate’s] experience and exposure to different technologies,” Peterson says. “The second interview is done in person, and it might be with just the director or it might be a panel interview.”

It’s in that face-to-face interview that candidates close the deal—or not. How they respond to questions usually gives Peterson the insight she needs to decide whether to bring them on. She considers things such as what kind of critical questions they ask and how they interact with team members, as well as “How do they connect with our stories? Do they respond with humor? Do they fit into the Acsys culture?”

How much effort company officials put into screening temporary workers depends on the position, says Wahlquist. “If you want a contract health care professional, you’ve got to verify credentials and go into deeper levels of background checks and screening,” he says. “In finance and accounting, you’re giving them access to financial information or even cash. It starts with verifying credentials, employment history, maybe doing a background check.”

Often, staffing agencies will screen candidates on behalf of the hiring company. EPOCH, for example, performs background checks, reference checks and behavioral assessments, Stewart says.

But, again, companies must communicate their needs. Wahlquist says that with security clearances and government contracts, for example, staffing companies can take on the level of background investigation required by the client.

‘Treat Them as an Employee’

Staffing agencies that understand their clients’ businesses and cultures likely will deliver temporary workers that fit in and excel at the company. Once the right workers are in place, it’s important to welcome them aboard for a seamless transition.

“When you finally get consultants in-house,” Peterson says, “you treat them as an employee, integrate them into the culture and expect high standards from them. They go out to lunch with team members, and when games are played and the fun is happening, they’re a part of it.”

Carole Fleck is a senior editor for AARP Bulletin.

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 Know Thy Vendor

 

Companies that use temporary staffing agencies should do their homework to make sure the partnership is fruitful. Consider the following:

  • Build relationships with numerous staffing companies so when assignments or projects arise, you can turn to agencies that have the best available talent.
  • Ask peers at other companies for referrals to staffing firms with which they do business. Consider using agencies that specialize in certain occupations or fields, such as accounting, health care or technology.
  • Visit staffing company web sites to determine how long they’ve been in business and the types of workers and services they provide.
  • Find out how the staffing firm recruits and retains temporary workers.
  • Make sure the staffing agency fully understands your business needs, projects and corporate culture. Have vendors visit the company site to get a sense of how business is done.
  • Ask how temporary employees are screened and tested, and whether the staffing agency carries workers’ compensation for its employees.