Part One in a 3-Part Series
By ANDREW HERMANN
Blast Boston Bureau
I read somewhere recently that 30 percent of the American work force
is now made up of temps and contractors. That sounds impossible but
shortly after reading that figure I myself landed a temp job that gave
me a chance to gather a little firsthand evidence.
It was a "database maintenance" job for a financial company, which I
took to mean data entry. Then I showed up for the job and was duly
informed that I would be calling everyone on the company mailing list to
verify that they were still there. The company mailing list was 3,600
names long. "But don't worry," my supervisor said. "A lot of them are
duplicate entries, and the ones that don't have phone numbers you don't
have to call."
So over the next couple of weeks, I made phone calls to every secretary
and receptionist in the financial services industry. And while not all
of them came right out and admitted it, my guess, based on the responses
I got, was that fully half of them were temps.
My attempts to verify mailing addresses were greeted by the sounds of
shuffling papers. More than once the poor disoriented minion at the
other end would start to give an address and stop short: "I'm sorry,
that's where I was last week." Requests for specific employees were
often met by long silences and occasionally, "Who?"
The gatekeepers of corporate America have become as anonymous and
interchangeable as the machines that are rapidly replacing them. In
fact, as I made my 3,600 phone calls, I actually grew to appreciate
those irritating auto-attendants; at least they spoke coherent English,
usually knew who worked there, and could transfer your call without
Not that the incompetence of the human receptionists bothered me,
particularly. I had already been temping for several months, and the
"database maintenance" gig was the first time I did not have to be one
of those tenaciously chipper gatekeepers fighting off business partners,
sales reps, and bill collectors armed only with an alien phone system and
an extension list as indecipherably retooled as a manager's 15th inning
lineup card. I actually sympathized with the hapless dunderheads unable
to direct my call. "Don't worry about it," I often said, "I don't really
know whom I'm working for, either."
I don't suppose my experiences as a temp have been any more surreal or
dispiriting than anyone else's. In fact, I know they're not, because a
few of my friends have also been temping recently and they report
exactly the same sorts of things. Someone should probably collect
people's temping stories and make a book out of them. The result might
provide an interesting worm's eye glimpse into the dark soul of corporate
America -- George Orwell meets Scott Adams.
In the meantime, I offer the following stories because, well, otherwise
the only thing I could honestly say I got out of temping was ten bucks
an hour and a few filched office supplies.
Here's a simple social experiment you can try yourself. The only tools
you need are long hair and at least one Y chromosome.
Put on your best suit, tie your hair back, brush up that resume, and go
in for an interview at Temp Agency A. During the interview, name-drop
software programs like an Egghead circular. You'll be asked to take a
typing test and one or more software tests, evil programs licensed
out to employment agencies by Microsoft that purport to measure
your ability to use Word or Excel based on how many useless features you
know, like modifying grid lines and resizing toolbars. You'll be told at
the end of the interview that it's a bad time of year to be entering the
temporary workforce and, gee whiz, we really don't have many positions
coming in now, but call us in a week and we'll see what's opened up.
After a week, when Temp Agency A still hasn't found you anything, get a
haircut. Then take yourself and your freshly cropped 'do to Temp Agency
B. Present them with the same resume and take the same battery of tests.
Does Temp Agency B now tell you that they're just bursting with unfilled
positions and can you start right away? Of course they do.
Because, of course, men with shorter hair make better temps. Substitute
the words "men" and "hair" for "women" and "skirts" and I'm pretty sure
the axiom still holds true.
I had done temp work before but this was the first time I wasn't doing
it in hopes of finding a permanent position. I had always assumed the
temp-to-perm jobs were the exception, that most temps fill in for people
on vacations or come in for short-term projects that require lots of
Xeroxing, but to my surprise my agency has continued to deluge me with
temp-to-perm offers. Having been through that mill twice before, I had
concluded that it was perhaps the rawest of the many raw deals offered
to temps. The temp agency offers such employees none of their own meager
benefits because they don't expect them to stick around, and the
"permanent" employer gets to delay their own benefits timeline for the
two- to four-month duration of the temp contract. You can wind up
working at the same place for six months before you're eligible for a
sick day, or 15 months before your first paid vacation. People do
this without going stark-raving mad, I guess, but I'm not quite sure
Amazingly, one of my "consultants" at my temp agency once admitted to me
the injustice of the temp-to-perm arrangement. "We try to discourage
employers from doing that," she confessed. "We ask them to just buy out
the contract, but many businesses feel it's worth the savings to keep
the employee on temporary status even after they know they're going to
"But it just builds resentment before the person's even officially been
hired," I said, speaking from personal experience.
"Exactly," my consultant agreed, apparently forgetting momentarily who
she was talking to. "It reflects badly on the employer."
"So why don't you lower your fees?" I asked. "Doesn't it reflect badly
on you when all the temps you 'place' in permanent positions wind up
quitting after a few months?"
"Call us as soon as you know your availability," said my consultant,
shifting back into the trademark tone of all '90s business
relationships built entirely on self-interest; the aggressively bright
timbre of bogus camaraderie. As soon as you hear that tone you can be
pretty sure that the conversation is over.
My first assignment was working at a high-tech start-up in Cambridge run
by a bunch of gearheads from MIT. It was what my temp agency always
refers to -- embarrassed to use the word "reception" when dealing with a
male employee, I suspect -- as a "front-desk" gig: answering phones,
sorting mail, light filing and typing.
"Make sure you wear proper business attire," I was told. "The last guy
we sent there was -- well, he didn't have really long hair, sort of a
Dutch Boy cut -- and they didn't exactly complain about it, but they made
mention of it. So I guess they're pretty button-down."
When I showed up for my first day, the person manning the front desk was
wearing jeans and sneakers. My frustration with the agency subsided when
I learned that the guy, Troy, was a programmer. Programmers at small
companies, I've learned, generally get to wear whatever they want. It's
sort of consolation prize for earning less money in a more
high-skilled position than the senior management, who are often dumber
than meat loaf but have to show up every day in a two-piece.
My last "real" job had been at a struggling startup where our Office
Depot desks were practically stacked on top of each other and the
"conference room" was bounded by black sheets of foam-core hung from the
ceiling tiles. So I was amazed at the sheer square-footage of this MIT
"start-up": storage rooms, spare offices, a fully stocked kitchen, a rec
area with a foosball table. One of my first "assignments" was to team up
with the CEO against the office's foosball masters, Troy and another
programmer named Phil. The two of them had apparently spent many late nights
gravitating between foosball table and workstation but somehow the CEO
and I managed to win our first game. I was thereby immediately pegged as
a "ringer," so foosball became part of my daily routine. While I blocked
shots and rubbed shirtsleeves with the CEO, the company's third
programmer, and only female employee, Yukiko, picked up the phones.
Not that there was much to pick up. The company was still in its product
development phase and had no market presence whatsoever. They had one of
those man-behind-the-curtain names designed not to attract attention; I
can't even remember it any more it was so forgettable, something like
"Energy Technologies Research" or "Resource Technologies Group."
Presumably if they ever came out with a product they would give it a
flashier name, but for now they preferred to remain invisible.
I was told repeatedly not to give out any information about the company,
not even our mailing address, but only to direct calls. "Don't be afraid
to play dumb," my supervisor told me. "Admit you're a temp and just say
you don't know." That should go over well, I thought -- I'm sorry, I don't
know our mailing address, I'm just a temp.
My supervisor told me this over the phone, because he worked at the
company's research lab, across town from the offices. The lab was the
most super-secretive part of this secretive company, so no temp would
ever be allowed to set foot there, but for some reason, they put this
lab technician in charge of all the temps. Hence, I was largely
unsupervised. Between phone calls and foosball games, I spent most of my
time playing computer games, surfing the Net, and creating little
cartoons in PowerPoint -- things like a little cartoon office worker
standing in front of a lit bomb and saying, in a little word balloon,
"Nobody told me this was part of my job."
Coming Up Next: My Very Own Office in the Psychiatric Unit; Receptionist
at the Bus Terminal; the Dating Life of a Temp