Temporary Connections

By Kathryn Tyler Jan 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, February 2006 To get a foot in the door, and to gain experience, HR professionals at many levels become temps.

Harriet Saxe is probably not your stereotypical HR temp. She left an HR job in the public sector five years ago to work as a temp and broaden her already extensive HR experience. It has been such a good fit for her—both personally and professionally—that she is still at it.

“It has been the best thing I could have done,” says Saxe, who gets her assignments through HR Extras, a temporary placement firm specializing in HR, headquartered in Portland, Ore. “I always thought of myself as preferring a stable, traditional employment situation, but I guess I was an ‘action junkie’ deep inside.” She adds: “I love moving from site to site, project to project.”

Also, as a temp, she is able to focus her energy on the assignment. “I’m like a buzz saw going through the work because I’m usually exempted from the meetings and emergencies” that go with regular employment as an HR specialist, she says.

While temping is a career choice rather than a steppingstone for Saxe, she is among the growing number of HR professionals—both novice and experienced—who use temporary employment to further their careers.

In fact, temping can help HR professionals at all levels advance in their career.

New graduates can use temping to help get on a track to a full-time position. Mid-level career HR professionals can work as temps while they search for a position in a new location or in a new industry. Even high-level HR executives can round out their skills and make new contacts by taking on temporary assignments.

“Temping is a good way for an entry-level or seasoned person to get a foot in the door,” says Valerie Stinson, PHR, director of HR Extras.

There are trade-offs, however, in salary and benefits that any HR professional should consider before jumping onto a temporary job track.

Where and When

HR professionals looking to take on temp work are in luck: While the demand for temps slowed during the recent economic turndown, it has been increasing in the past 18 months, says Stinson. But not all HR temp positions are equally hot right now. The specialties with the greatest demand for temporary professionals are recruiting, benefits, compensation, information systems and general HR. The fewest temporary positions are in training; companies prefer to hire outside vendors for that specialty. (For more on temps in human resource departments, see " Using Temps in HR ".)

“We see increased need for recruiters—especially in hard-to-find categories like IT and nursing—as well as HR generalists to handle routine tasks,” says James A. Essey, president and CEO of TemPositions, a staffing company in New York, and a past president of the American Staffing Association (ASA). “HR assistants who handle mostly compliance and benefits paperwork are also in demand,” he says, particularly during open enrollment.

The number of temp positions available to HR professionals depends on where they are in their careers. About 40 percent of the positions are pegged to professionals with less than three years of experience, according to Stinson. An estimated 55 percent of the jobs are suitable for mid-level professionals—three to 10 years of experience—she continues, and the remaining 5 percent are for those in the executive ranks.

Early Arrivals: Minimal HR Experience

“When you’re coming out of college with an HR degree, it’s hard to get a job when the market is flooded with thousands of people with two or three years [or more] of HR experience,” says Bill Kasko, president of Frontline Source Group, a temporary staffing agency in Dallas.

Temping, says Essey, “is a terrific way to jump to the head of the line in the hiring process. Entry-level HR professionals are not forced to send resumes and hope they are selected for an interview. Instead, they are put to work in front of the hiring manager. If they do a good job, they are almost guaranteed to be hired for open positions.”

Heather Buxton hopes it works out that way for her. In May she will receive a master’s degree in business administration, with a focus on HR, from Willamette University in Salem, Ore. But she is concerned about her ability to get a staff HR position that will utilize her graduate education. In the meantime, she is working as an HR temp in benefits administration.

“I have been told I’m overqualified for many positions due to my education, but I’m also underqualified for others due to a lack of ‘real-world experience,’ ” Buxton says. “Temping was the only option that materialized into a job. It was nearly impossible to get a job without the temp agency, but, at the same time, I ended up with a job that doesn’t utilize even half of my skills. For new HR professionals, temping may be the only way to gain experience to make you qualified for a full-time position.”

Another recent graduate, Katie Phalen, underscores how important it has become for HR professionals with minimal experience to do some short-term work on their way to landing a full-time position. She’s counting on her experience as an intern in HR at William Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Mich., to help pave the way for her. “Also,” she says, “it is a low-commitment way to gain insight into the profession, organization, and the way it is run.”

Joel Rivas wasn’t just out of school when he went job-hunting—he was laid off from a job as an HR support manager—but he had been in HR for only two years. “I knew I needed more HR experience,” he says.

Rivas took a four-month temporary assignment as the sole HR professional at a St. Paul, Minn., manufacturing company that was closing. “It was useful and challenging,” he says. “It was tough, emotionally, as I was a sounding board for a lot of [employees’] angst. It helped me learn how to defuse a situation when an employee is upset and resolve issues quickly.” Rivas is now a full-time staffing manager at Command Center, a staffing agency in Hudson, Wis.

Mid-Level Professionals

Like new graduates, many mid-level HR professionals who are looking for full-time positions take temporary jobs to fill the income gap between full-time positions—and to gain entry to companies where they would like to join the staff.

Mid-level HR professionals, however, are more selective about the temporary assignments they’re willing to accept. They want to be sure they don’t take jobs that would deny them the time they might need to search for a full-time position. They also want temp jobs that look good on their resumes.

But Kasko cautions that HR professionals should not overlook less-than-ideal temporary assignments. “Every job is a networking opportunity,” he says. “A temporary assignment is a working interview. If you’re brought in to do a specific job, do it to the best of your ability and meet people.”

Stinson agrees and adds that seasoned professionals shouldn’t shy away from a temporary assignment paying slightly less than they want. While she wouldn’t recommend taking a pay cut for a full-time job, she says it’s acceptable for a temp position. “I’ve seen it many times: You make connections working at almost entry level, mingling with professionals, and you end up getting a job back at the higher level.”

Mid-career HR professionals should also look at temporary positions as a way to expand their experience, especially if they’ve worked for most of their career at one company and now find themselves downsized, says Essey.

But mid-level HR professionals, unlike those at entry level, can find it difficult to break out of their HR specialty, experts say. “Companies want somebody with experience” when they’re filling a mid-level HR position, Stinson says. “People can explore different industries or companies, but not necessarily a different specialty of HR.”

The Executive Branch

Temporary senior executive HR positions are scarce; there is a niche group of HR executives with a decade or more of experience who take temporary assignments. “Senior HR professionals don’t want to invest their permanent, full-time employment into a company without testing it out first,” says Yeny Kerrigan, HR practice director for Spherion, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Also, in contracting, you make more money and have the flexibility to work whenever you want.”

Deborah DeCamp, regional director for Midwest Manpower Professional in Milwaukee, agrees. “Some like the flexibility,” she says. “Some want to develop skills or build up experience. Others like to change from project to project.”

Kathleen Quandee, SPHR, who works as a temporary HR executive, taking assignments from HR Extras, started temping in 1997 after she moved to San Diego from Northern California. Her aim was to get HR experience outside the retail industry. “I covered a maternity leave for an HR director of a marketing information software company,” she says. “I was able to gain some hands-on knowledge in [different] areas. The position lasted five months and was a great experience. When they needed a VP of HR two years later, the CEO contacted me. I accepted the position, which turned out to be one of the most rewarding of my career.”

Says Quandee: “It is easier for me to find temp assignments than a regular position. As you advance in your career, there are fewer positions available, so the timeline of the job search lengthens.”

In addition, even senior HR professionals feel they gain skills and insights from working as a temporary employee. “It’s a great way to benchmark your skills against other HR professionals,” says Quandee.

But senior HR executives who work as temps face special challenges. “The more experience you have, the more you may have to remind yourself why you’re there,” says Quandee. “It can be difficult for people [who are] used to leading to focus on more task-oriented projects.”

Moreover, she adds, they may have to accept a lower salary. “I sometimes take much less than I would in an equivalent regular role, just to gain some local references. This has always paid off in the long run.”

Don’t Let Details Become Drawbacks

If you intend to work as a temporary HR professional, decide how you will meet your financial needs.

“Be prepared for downtime between assignments when there’ll be no paycheck,” Saxe advises. And keep in mind, she says, that “when you’re sick, on vacation, or the employing office is closed for a holiday, you don’t get paid. You won’t get any end-of-year or performance bonuses, either. Finally, you need to have your own method of covering health insurance, life insurance” and outlays for retirement savings.

“Be selective in the [staffing] firm you work with,” Essey recommends. “Find one that has client relationships in the industries in which you would like to work.” And make sure the firm you choose conforms to certain ethical codes, such as those set forth by the ASA for its members, says the staffing organization’s president and CEO, Richard A. Wahlquist.

Finally, temporary HR professionals recommend selecting a staffing firm that specializes in HR, if possible. Such firms—although they are few and far between—can offer more services than “general administrative” staffing companies, says Quandee, and they “have great networks.”

What every HR professional needs to do is build networks, and working as a temp can help. Temping is a viable option at every stage of your career if you use it to develop broader skills, experience and contacts to gain a foothold in a new company.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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