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Soaring temp jobs suggest unease

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WASHINGTON – Hiring is exploding in the one corner of the U.S. economy where few want to be hired: Temporary work.

From Wal-Mart to General Motors to PepsiCo, companies are increasingly turning to temps and to a much-larger universe of freelancers, contract workers and consultants. Combined, these workers number nearly 17 million people who have only tenuous ties to the companies that pay them – about 12 percent of everyone with a job.

Hiring is always healthy for an economy. Yet the rise in temp and contract work shows that many employers aren’t willing to hire for the long run.

The number of temps has jumped more than 50 percent since the recession ended four years ago to nearly 2.7 million – the most on government records dating to 1990. In no other sector has hiring come close.

That trend does not seem to hold in New Mexico, however. Changes in temp employment in New Mexico appear to be the result of changes in job classifications by labor-data analysts rather than a real employment trend, Lee Reynis of the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research told the Journal . “We don’t see much evidence in the data of growth in this area,” she said.

Driving the national trend are lingering uncertainty about the economy and employers’ desire for more flexibility in matching their payrolls to their revenue. Some employers have also sought to sidestep the new health-care law’s rule that they provide medical coverage for permanent workers. Last week, though, the Obama administration delayed that provision of the law for a year.

The use of temps has extended into sectors that seldom used them in the past – professional services, for example, which include lawyers, doctors and information technology specialists.

Temps typically receive low pay, few benefits and scant job security. That makes them less likely to spend freely, so temp jobs don’t tend to boost the economy the way permanent jobs do. More temps and contract workers also help explain why pay has barely outpaced inflation since the recession ended.

Beyond economic uncertainty, Ethan Harris, global economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, thinks more lasting changes are taking root.

“There’s been a generational shift toward a less committed relationship between the firm and the worker,” Harris says.

An Associated Press survey of 37 economists in May found that three-quarters thought the increased use of temps and contract workers represented a long-standing trend.

The trend toward contract workers was intensified by the depth of the recession and the tepid pace of the recovery. A heavy investment in long-term employment isn’t a cost all companies want to bear anymore.

“There’s much more appreciation of the importance of having flexibility in the workforce,” says Barry Asin of Staffing Industry Analysts, a consulting firm.

Susan Houseman, an economist at the Upjohn Institute of Employment Research, says companies want to avoid having too many employees during a downturn, just as manufacturers want to avoid having too much inventory if demand slows.

“You have your just-in-time workforce,” Houseman says. “You only pay them when you need them.”

This marks a shift from what economists used to call “labor hoarding.”

Companies typically retained most of their staff throughout recessions, hoping to ride out the downturn.

“We clearly don’t have that anymore,” says Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The result is that temps and contract workers have become fixtures at large companies. Business executives say they help their companies stay competitive. They also argue that temp work can provide valuable experience.

“It opens more doors for people to enter the labor market,” says Jeff Joerres, CEO of ManpowerGroup, a workplace staffing firm.

But Houseman’s research has found that even when jobs are classified as “temp to permanent,” only 27 percent of such assignments lead to permanent positions.

About one-third of temporary workers work in manufacturing.

Journal staff contributed to this report.

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