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Temps in demand

Patricia V. Rivera -- The tide may be turning for temporary workers, usually the first casualties in a slowing economy.

Businesses that have cut back in recent months now realize they need help.

"They may be in a hiring freeze, but they still must get their work done. Lately, we've seen more of them look for contract [temporary] workers," said Curtis Ludwig, metro manager at Robert Half International in Dallas.

In particular, financial services companies appear to appreciate the benefits of temporary workers.

Eight out of 10 businesses are hiring professional employees -- for managerial, clerical, accounting and finance positions -- on a temporary basis with the intent to hire them full time if they work out, says a recently released survey by Accounting Principals, a finance staffing agency.

"With the market for talent remaining competitive and tight ... companies are more closely monitoring what it costs to recruit and retain employees -- and are placing top priority on hiring the right people the first time," said Sal Vittolino, director of public relations and communications at Modis Professional Services, parent company of Accounting Principals.

The arrangement, sometimes called temp-to-hire, helps retain good workers by assuring that the fit is right between employer and employee, he added. And it also gives workers a chance to learn more about a company's culture before committing.

"In the past, I'd accepted a position that I probably wouldn't have had I known more about the company," said Tracy McNeese, an audit manager at Fred Bastie & Associates in North Dallas.

She tried temping as a means of learning about different aspects of accounting. She expected the job at Fred Bastie to last a couple of months.

"I started in September, and by November they'd asked me to stay," she said.

Ms. McNeese belonged to the fastest-growing segment of temporary workers: professionals, including lawyers, marketers, accountants and even scientists.

The number of temporary workers at U.S. companies more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1990 to an average of 3.8 million in 2000 as the record economic expansion, which entered its 11th year last month, created labor shortages.

But the slowing economy has hit temporary workers hard.

The number of people employed by temporary personnel firms has declined for six months after reaching a record 3.89 million in September, the same month that unemployment fell to a 30-year low, Labor Department figures show.

Firing temporary workers is easier for businesses because they're able to escape severance payments and other costs associated with eliminating full-time jobs, experts said.

Now with less money available for permanent hires, they're filling gaps with short-term workers, said Robert Half's Mr. Ludwig.

More than half of the 100 companies surveyed by Accounting Principals said they added temp-to-hire workers to their payrolls even though they hadn't originally planned on hiring anyone.

-- Companies can better assess employees' performance before hiring them full time.
-- Employers and workers have time to determine if the fit is right between them.
-- Work is still being done while companies evaluate employees' performance.
-- The short-term arrangement reduces the time it takes to find the right full-time employees.

(c) 2001 The Dallas Morning News

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