By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s stuttering economy has left many businesses in the state struggling to stay afloat, but the past few months have been a boon to staffing agencies, which report growing demand for their temporary help by companies still uncertain about a turnaround.
Temp agencies are also getting a boost from businesses that want to try out a job candidate before locking them in during an uncertain market.
“If companies can’t project past the next six months, then most companies aren’t willing to commit,” said Dave Mayer, president of Allines Placement Firm of Baltimore.
So far this year, about 170,000 jobs nationally were created for “temps,” according to the American Staffing Association.
“They are reluctant to hire permanent employees until they’re more confident of the strengths and sustainability of a recovery,” said Steve Berchem, vice president of the American Staffing Association, which is based in Alexandria, Va., and represents the $66 billion U.S. staffing industry.
Last year, the daily average of temporary employment in Maryland was 35,900, according to the Maryland Staffing Association. The average daily employment is the standard barometer used by the staffing industry to gauge hiring conditions.
The number of temporary employees used decreased 11.6 percent from 2000, but the number of companies hiring temporary staff increased to 375 from 370 during that time.
“As a whole, Maryland has not seen a shutdown or stoppage of usage of our industry,” said Kathy Whaley, MSA president.
It was one of the first sectors to hit bottom after the economy retracted, Berchem said, but its rebound may signal better days ahead for the state’s economy.
“The staffing industry tends to lead or very closely follow the leading edge of the economy,” Berchem said.
U.S. staffing companies increased their hiring 4.9 percent in this year’s second quarter to 2 million temporary and contract employees daily, according to a national survey by the ASA last month. It was the biggest quarterly gain after a year and a half of continuous decline. Still, 2002’s second-quarter hiring indicator of temporary staff help was 8 percent less than the same period in 2001.
“In the recession, overall, they did poorly,” said Susan Houseman, senior economist for W.E. Upjohn Institute, which researches employment trends. “In very recent months, there’s been a pickup in their business.”
Because many businesses hire through them, staffing agencies are a good indicator of better economic conditions, Houseman said.
As a result, downsized companies have tapped into temporary workers, having realized they’re a much cheaper solution for filling growing customer demands, Whaley said. They aren’t required to provide benefits.
Accountants Inc., which places temporary-type staff to handle accounting and finance work for several Maryland companies, has seen about a 40 percent jump in the number of contracted employees being hired, said franchise owner Allen Fletcher.
“It’s a way for companies to satisfy their needs for peak periods,” Fletcher said.
Most important to employers, this method gives them some protection, a channel to test the waters. Take Carol Duffus, executive director for the Allegany Arts Council, who had terrible experiences with the people she hired for an administrative assistant position.
“It didn’t work out,” she said. “I was beginning not to trust my judgment.”
Duffus wanted a person who had “wonderful computer skills and a person who had an interest in the arts.” Someone, she said, who exuded a professional manner.
Duffus found those qualities in Emily Thomas, who began as a temporary staff member and was offered a permanent position after a couple of months. ACT Personnel Service Inc. of LaVale helped Duffus test out Thomas as a worker. Thomas, 25, was honored a few weeks ago as the state’s staffing employee of the year by the Maryland Staffing Association.
“I have to say ACT Personnel is the first staffing agency I have used,” Duffus said. “But they’ve been most comfortable to deal with. They followed through once Emily was hired. They called to say how Emily was working out. I wouldn’t hesitate to use their service again if needed.”