On the job: Here come the "supertemps"

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(MoneyWatch) Some 58 percent of companies plan to use temporary employees -- at all levels -- over the next few years, the Harvard Business Review reports. Authors Jody Greenstone Miller and Matt Miller say that temporary employment is no longer limited to administrative assistants, warehouse workers, or other low-level work. High-level people are choosing to work as temporary employees and earning money comparable to what they would have earned as an employee, or even as a partner, in a traditional company.

When you have specialized skills that are in demand, it can be to your advantage to work solo. That allows you to take on the projects you like, rather than dealing with the typical administrative and political headaches in a traditional corporate job. The authors write:

Consider Roger Corson (not his real name), a graduate of Stanford's business school, who was a partner at a leading strategy consulting firm when he decided to go independent, 18 months ago. His wife and he had recently had their first child, and her corporate job required extensive travel. The industry in which Roger had mostly worked had cut back on outside consultants. If he was going to have to reinvent his client base, he recalls thinking, he might as well do it on his own: He'd have more flexibility to go after the clients he truly wanted and to set limits on how hard he worked (80-hour weeks had been his norm for years, something he felt was literally unsustainable).

Now, Roger says, I am continually surprised at how easy it is to do this kind of work without all of the resources of a big consulting firm behind you. He reports being amazed at the amount of bandwidth that I have to really focus on the client, free of the administrative chores that big-firm partnership entails. I feel so much fresher in terms of being able to be present, to be there and help solve the problem, he says. Roger works 80 percent of his former hours and earns 80 percent of his former pay -- a trade he says is ideal.

Working on your own is not traditional, but the people who do it find it to their liking. A 2011 survey of independent professionals (in other words, high-end temporary workers) found that close to 80 percent of these workers were satisfied with their current situation. That figure is especially notable given that 45 percent of the respondents had been "forced" into that role.

Among those who aren't forced into these less permanent positions are the highly educated and experienced women who are building their own mommy track. Instead of settling for a less fulfilling career in favor of a family, these women get both. Brooke Borgen writes:

I am absolutely seeing this "Supertemp" trend among many 30-something moms (like my business partner and me) who have incredible resumes and have attended some of the country's best educational institutions. As driven and motivated people, most of our career paths end up with a binary all-or-nothing proposition once we have kids whereby even scaling back to a "part-time" schedule can be a 40 hour work week instead of the 60-80 hours we were used to. In order to spend quality time with my kids after getting my MBA at [Harvard Business School] and then working at Bain & Co, I opted out of the traditional corporate track in order to do freelance projects. My business partner, a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a major law firm, was in the same boat and Canopy Advisory Group was born: now a portfolio of ~25 professional services consultants across consulting, law, finance, and marketing in Denver, Colo.

Will such "supertemps" become more common? Health insurance can be difficult, if not impossible, for an independent person to obtain. People who would like to work solo but have health concerns cannot give up their traditional jobs without losing health coverage. This is a nationwide problem, with health care tied to employment for most people. But companies do see value in an experienced, capable temp. There's less risk in hiring a temp then there is in hiring a "permanent" employee. And filling a role with an interim person can allow a company the time to determine which path they would like to take.

Temps also allow for flexibility, which can ultimately lead to cost savings. You can test ideas rather than having to make commitments to full-time staff. If the idea fails, it doesn't lead to layoffs and unhappy former employees. If it succeeds, companies can then decide to staff it formally.

There are risks in functioning even as a high-level temp, including the lack of health insurance. Another is that regardless of what the temp and company want, the IRS can retroactively determine that a person really isn't independent but an employee. Additionally, when you are independent, it can mean "job hunting" every few months. For the truly superstar talent who can pick and choose jobs, this isn't a problem. But for a person who is highly qualified, but not a superstar, this can pose an additional risk.

No matter what, old-fashioned business models are giving way to new ways of thinking, and the supertemp model appears to be taking hold.


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