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Trends Show Recent Upswing In Hiring Of Temporary Workers

MARA LEE

January 23, 2010

There is some good news in Connecticut's job market, despite a continued barrage of grim data.

It's halting and slow, but in the past month or two, companies have been calling temporary agencies and asking for workers.

Connecticut, as usual, is a bit behind the nation in a return to hiring, even in the temporary work arena.

Nationally, this trend began in September, and gained strength in October and November. Nationwide, temporary agencies added more than 50,000 workers in November and 46,000 in December, an increase of 2 to 3 percent each month.

Temp hiring is often a harbinger of improvement after recessions because it means companies have more work, although they are still not confident enough to hire permanent staff.

There are no state figures available yet, but a Courant survey of six temporary agencies in the region, from small family-owned companies to national powerhouses, found that five of the six are seeing an uptick in demand.

Jobpro had an incremental improvement in client demand in November, and has stayed at that level, Vice President Jennifer Beck said. The agency has two offices, in East Hartford and West Hartford, and has a few hundred temps on assignment.

"It's certainly not a situation where companies are aggressively hiring, even temps," she said. "It's quiet. Companies are making slight adjustments in their staffing. Many companies are still not hiring, they're hanging with what they have. Most of the people we're speaking with, they're waiting and seeing the way things go."

Crysta Rodriguez, 27, of Hartford, registered with Jobpro on Friday, hoping to benefit from the first stirrings of the recovery. She has a part-time janitorial job for 4 hours each weekday evening, at $8.50 an hour, but lost her $9.75 hourly factory job at HomeGoods in May 2008, when many people were laid off, she said.

She said the HomeGoods job was only steady for the last two months of 2007. By January 2008, they started cutting hours.

Rodriguez said Hector Girald, a co-worker at her janitorial job, recommended that she register for temp work.

Girald, 19, of Hartford, dropped out of Hartford's public schools, and lost his $9-an-hour factory job at New Britain's Norpaco Gourmet Foods in November. After registering with Jobpro, he started getting assignments at New Britain's Southpack, shipping digital cameras and SIM cards. Most weeks he gets at least three days there, at minimum wage.

"Sometimes I even get the whole week," he said. "Depends on how much work there is."

"Right now it's very hard to find work anywhere," he said, and he's been pleased with how Jobpro connected him to this opportunity. "I'll take anything right now."

Temp agencies are hearing that a lot, and from candidates with far more education and experience than Girald.

Crush Of Applicants

"We are inundated with people. That's been going on for six months," said Nancy Cronin, a senior manager in A.R. Mazzotta Employment Specialists' Middletown office. The staffing agency also has offices in Westbrook and Wallingford.

"Right now, people will come in and tell you they'll do anything. That's not something that you like to hear," she said. "People are scared, and they haven't worked in a while. You see a lot of people apply for jobs for which they're very overqualified."

Unfortunately for downsized professionals, employers choosing temps to answer phones or work in a warehouse don't usually pick people who used to make $50,000 to $100,000.

Sean Lee, regional director for Manpower's New England offices, said people with master's degrees apply, saying: "I've been out of work for two years. I'll do anything to bring some income in."

"The customers are so selective these days. They're not really willing to look at these people for temp-to-hire positions, unless it's not that dramatic of a fallback for them."

"They don't want to overhire," said Eileen Candels, vice president for Kelly Services' Hartford office. She tries to place those candidates by offering them substitute teaching assignments, which require bachelor's degrees.

She said the uptick in demand for her agency's workers "is slow, but it's noticeable, because of how quiet it's been earlier."

Temporary agencies saw the number of assignments drop like a stone in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed and the credit meltdown took off.

Agencies around the region said the positions dropped 30, 40, even 45 percent.

Cronin, who has worked in staffing for 22 years, said, "It was shocking. It was hard, it was very hard."

Harbinger Of Recovery?

Jennifer Arenas, metro market manager for Robert Half International's Hartford, New Haven, Shelton and Springfield offices, repeated the conventional wisdom as she talked about increased interest in her agency's workers.

"The great news about that is the temporary sector generally foreshadows what the [overall job market] is going to show in the next couple of months," she said.

But unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is a little ahead of reality.

After the 2001 recession, temporary hiring clearly started improving in February 2002, but fell from September until May 2003, when its second strong upswing began.

The overall job market didn't start growing until September 2003 22 months after the official end of the recession.

If this recession followed that pattern, the overall number of jobs would start growing around May 2011.

Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said economists say the job market starts recovering three to six months after temporary hiring picks up.

But he said they forget that February-August 2002 temp growth "was not the harbinger of a general recovery. We have to understand, the economy's going to come back in fits and starts."

In good times, companies frequently hire temporary workers onto their full-time staffs if they prove themselves. That's not as often the case right now.

"There are a lot more customers saying, 'I would love to, but I can't.' More companies are keeping people on as temps longer. They're just not feeling the confidence to say I'm ready to commit to this," Jobpro's Beck said.

But staffing managers agree that customers are telling them they anticipate bringing on more temps in the next few months.

Manpower, with eight offices in Connecticut and three in Greater Hartford, has large corporate manufacturing clients telling them they have more orders, and they'll need more people to produce the goods. They want to try them out as temps first, Lee said. Manpower is forecasting strong growth in its business as a result.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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