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You're Hired. At Least for Now.

More employers will rely on temps and contract workers.

While unemployed folks wait for the jobs of tomorrow, they're taking the temp work of today. Employment for contingent workers has increased 23% since July, according to the American Staffing Association. Close to 166,000 temp jobs have been added to the payrolls since last summer, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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That’s typical of the job market as the economy emerges from recession. For managers, contracting with temporary workers seems a more prudent choice than taking on full-time staff -- especially with talk of persistent economic woes still in the air.

What’s different about this recovery is that companies, many of which cut staffs to the quick, seem committed to staying flexible in the long term by using contingent workers to manage everything from special projects to whole departments. Moreover, instead of the typists and factory workers who have traditionally populated the ranks of temps, these days you’re likely to be working alongside an engineer, accountant, doctor, lawyer or technology guru.

Companies now spend $425 billion annually on contingent labor, which accounts for about 11% of the workforce, or 14 million people. “We’re seeing much stronger demand for professional skills,” says Joanie Ruge, senior vice-president of Adecco Group North America, a giant temp-staffing agency. “We have 1,500 openings across the U.S. for contract accounting and finance positions.”

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Littler Mendelson, a worldwide law firm specializing in labor law, is firmly convinced of the coming contingent-worker revolution. Littler predicts that half of the new workers added in 2010 will be contingent -- enough that soon 25% to 35% of employees in the U.S. will be on finite stints, working project to project or under contract. The possibility that health insurance will become more affordable to those outside traditional employment arrangements could be a big impetus.

It’s getting easier to maintain an upward career trajectory as a contingent worker. Professional connections are easy to make and maintain via electronic networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and via plain old e-mail. Varied assignments that expose you to different companies stretch your skills. And in addition to the services of traditional staffing agencies, such as Adecco or Manpower Inc., a host of other businesses, such as MBO Partners and BOTH, have sprung up to help people committed to the free-agent lifestyle. These firms provide back-office work such as billing, bookkeeping and tax services; they may also offer group insurance and retirement plans and facilitate collaboration with peers.

For now, though, most people who take on temp work still hope for a permanent offer -- and 20% to 30% of them will likely get one. But a recent survey by the American Staffing Association showed that 25% of temps preferred the autonomy and flexibility of a contingent career, where success depends on your skills and the demand for them instead of on the fortunes of a single company or even an entire industry. Says ASA president Richard Wahlquist: “It’s a different kind of job security.”

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