5 strategies to survive in a world of permanent temps

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Jan 12

Can we talk?

When I look out in cubicle world, I’m still stunned that people think their job is permanent. They are surprised at being laid off by their company’s management. They still think that finding another job will be a walk in the park. They anguish that their retirement was lost because they invested 100% in their company’s stock in their 401(k) when their company goes bankrupt.

This happens every day. Fortune 500 companies make the news with their layoffs, of course. But small businesses are just as susceptible to downturns of their own — instead of laying employees off, they go out of business.

Further evidence of the passing of the permanent job comes from the wide-ranging article “The rise of the permanent temporary workforce — pay is falling, benefits are vanishing and no one’s job is secure.” The article lays out much of this in stark relief:

You know American workers are in bad shape when a low-paying, no-benefits job is considered a sweet deal. Their situation isn’t likely to improve soon; some economists predict it will be years, not months, before employees regain any semblance of bargaining power. That’s because this recession’s unusual ferocity has accelerated trends — including off shoring, automation, the decline of labor unions’ influence, new management techniques, and regulatory changes — that already had been eroding workers’ economic standing.

The forecast for the next five to 10 years: more of the same, with paltry pay gains, worsening working conditions, and little job security. Right on up to the C-suite, more jobs will be freelance and temporary, and even seemingly permanent positions will be at greater risk. “When I hear people talk about temp vs. permanent jobs, I laugh,” says Barry Asin, chief analyst at the Los Altos (Calif.) labor-analysis firm Staffing Industry Analysts. “The idea that any job is permanent has been well proven not to be true.” As Kelly Services, CEO Carl Camden puts it: “We’re all temps now.”

Yes, we’re all temps now — but we aren’t ready for the role. Because we’re not ready for being a temp all the time, the pain of the job loss — including our expectations — take an even bigger hit.

This year, resolve to ready yourself the Cubicle Warrior way — be ready for the permanent, temporary workforce where you offer your job skills in return for pay. For a while. Then find another position where you offer your job skills in return for pay. For another while. Rinse. Repeat.

Here are five strategies to get you moving in the right direction:

1. Live well within your means

Mountains of debt and a house mortgage that is under water from sinking home prices is not the place to be to handle not having a job between assignments in the temporary world of work. Becoming financially strong is tough, especially digging yourself out of a financial hole.

Americans are starting to realize that mountains of debt doesn’t cut it anymore and savings does. But getting tough on your finances is necessary to survive in a world of a permanent temporary workforce.

2. Have a year’s take-home pay in the bank

Getting back to “full” employment will mean generating something like 500-600,000 new jobs every month for several years. Not going to happen.

That means that some jobs won’t come back at all and that the time to find another job — especially to hold your income levels — will take longer to do.

Nothing beats back desperation like having a year’s worth of take-home pay in the bank. It’s not easy to get to this level of savings — but necessary in today’s work environment.

3. Exercise and stay healthy

When everything about the work world is temporary, stress follows. One of the better ways of handling stress is to exercise regularly — and it helps your overall health as well.

Staying healthy through correct eating and exercise sounds like it wouldn’t impact your work world, but doing well on the job is often driven by low stress, good energy and the awareness of your surroundings that exercise and good health brings.

Workers hired for temporary or contract work face a higher risk of developing mental health problems like depression, according to research presented in 2009 by Amélie Quesnel-Vallée of McGill University. A lack of job security and health care benefits, as well as social ties to the rest of the workforce, increase stress levels for temps and contractors. A survey conducted in September by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that people who experienced a forced change in their employment during the last year were twice as likely to report symptoms consistent with severe mental illness as individuals who hadn’t experienced one.

This is why prevention, through health and wellness, is important.

4. Know your job skills and the type of environment you like to work in for success

How many of you are stuck in jobs that you don’t like? Well, a lot:

A Conference Board survey released on Jan. 5 found that only 45 percent of workers surveyed were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling. Poor morale can devastate performance. After making deep staff cuts following the subprime implosion, UBS, Credit Suisse, and American Express hired Harvard psychology lecturer Shawn Achor to train their remaining employees in positive thinking. Says Achor: “All the employees had just stopped working.

That’s what happens in jobs you don’t like — you stop working and start playing career defense. Hiring managers like to hire people who produce results and stopping work means you don’t produce results. It’s a vicious cycle — go to a job in an environment you don’t like and don’t produce results. That means you are at a larger risk of performance issues or layoff and you are not building the results needed in a resume to attract other hiring managers.

Now, jobs change over time. The job you started with and loved may turn into the job you hate. But the first step in finding jobs that you like — and knowing when the one you are in no longer works for what you like — is understanding the work you like to do and the environment you like doing the work in.

5. Know how long a position will last

In a world of permanent temps, every gig has an end. Every. Single. One. You may be overjoyed at getting a new job that fits in with what you love to do, but before the bloom is off the rose, it is time to take a hard look at how long you think the job will last.

Is it one year? Two years? Use your skills to predict how long a job will last and then review it every month. How long you think a job will last changes over time, but the key is that when you think the job will end hits the time line for finding a new job, you need to start looking for a new job. Waiting until the (bitter) end and hoping for severance really isn’t much of an option any more. It takes too long to find another job and the work you stay in isn’t much fun, especially if the situation is so bad you essentially stop working.

Your choice: proactive or reactive

There are a lot of feel-good career sites out there, but feeling good only happens when you are prepared for the world as it is. Cube Rules is about the nuts and bolts of finding a job, being successful in a job and doing right for your career. Most of what I write about here requires you to be proactive about your work and career and not sit back playing defense.

So this is hard, because it takes effort and discipline. That’s why I call the people who proactively work their job Cubicle Warriors — because it really is a warrior-type effort to stay on top of the career game.

The payoff is this: when everyone else around you is losing their head over work, you can stay relaxed and in the moment looking for the right work to do next. And you will do better then your competition because you did the proactive work necessary to live in a world where the only permanent work is temporary work.

Sure, we’re all temps now. But, we can also be Cubicle Warriors. Your choice.

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  • Scot Herrick says:

    Hannah, I agree, but would also note that millions of people are working jobs without health insurance. Scary; I've always wondered why business (not the insurance companies) would not support a single payer option by the government and just pay taxes to support it because it frees up talent.

    I also look at “permanently temporary” work as serial jobs with the same or different companies. It could very well be that there is health insurance from company to company; but you still need to view the position as temporary. Because all positions are temporary in one way or another.

    Thanks for the comment; I really appreciate it.

  • Scott: Really great points. Now how do we get this into the hands of every single employed person? I am amazed when job seekers tell me they won't consider temp work. Their motivator…I NEED BENEFITS. Once we find away to take health insurance benefits out of the hands of the employer, we may be better able to cope with being temps!

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