One sector of Maine’s job market has been expanding rapidly, although its growth isn’t necessarily a positive sign for workers.

Jobs obtained through temporary staffing agencies increased 31 percent from the first quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Labor.

That growth mirrors a national trend that has pushed the number of temp agency workers employed in the United States to a record high of nearly 2.7 million, an increase of more than 50 percent since the recession ended in 2009.

Economists and temp agency executives said that while putting more people to work is a good thing, the increased reliance on temps is a sign that many employers remain unsure about the future.

“It’s both a positive bellwether and also the canary in the coal mine,” said Margo Walsh, owner of Falmouth-based staffing agency MaineWorks LLC.

Maine Works, which provides short-term labor to construction companies, has experienced an increase in demand of 30 percent to 40 percent in the past year alone, Walsh said.

“My clients are reluctant to staff permanently because the work is not consistent,” she said.

The company was formed in 2009 and has grown to a staff of 55 temp workers, Walsh said. MaineWorks operates on an unusual model in which the workers, all convicted felons seeking to rebuild their lives, are actually full-time employees of the agency.

While traditional temp-agency employment can be a bridge to a permanent job, she said, it usually pays less, offers no health insurance or other benefits and provides no long-term stability for the worker.

“This is like phantom employment,” Walsh said. “It’s not real employment.”

Employers in Maine are less reliant on temp agencies than the country as a whole, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

Only about 1 percent of Maine’s total workforce was hired through temp agencies as of December 2012, compared with about 2 percent nationwide. Those figures exclude temporary and seasonal workers not affiliated with an agency.

Still, temp agencies in the Portland area said demand for their workers is way up this year.

Portland-based Bonney Staffing Center hosted an all-day job fair Wednesday in Scarborough to find candidates for a wide variety of temporary positions, including more than 150 light-industrial jobs.

The company also is seeking office, medical and customer-service workers for its clients, said Bonney’s Portland branch manager, Sarah Joy. “There’s a lot of demand,” she said.

About 25 job-seekers showed up during the job fair’s first two hours. Some, like Westbrook resident Marlanda Wing, already have full-time jobs but were still looking.

“I’m just exploring other options,” said Wing, a deli manager at Walmart.

Wing said her goal is to find a permanent, full-time office job, but she said there are some advantages to starting out as a temp.

“You can see if it’s something you want to do before they hire you full time,” she said.

Joy said temp agencies aren’t just for general labor and construction jobs. Employers have been coming to agencies to find highly skilled workers and even executives, she said.

The temp worker model is attractive to the agency’s clients because they get to test out potential employees before making any long-term commitments, Joy said.

“Customers will be more willing to take a temporary-fill employee before they have the confidence to hire a full-time employee,” she said.

From an employer’s perspective, there really is no downside to using a temp agency, said Ann Marie Meyaard, director of worldwide talent acquisition for Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook.

The company, which does lab testing for veterinarians, uses temps to fill positions not expected to be permanent in an industry that can be cyclical, Meyaard said.

If a particular temp stands out as an excellent potential employee, the company can always hire that person on a permanent basis, she said.

Another benefit is that quality temp agencies perform all the due diligence, vetting and skills testing of workers before sending them to an employer, Meyaard said.

“A temp agency has their own reputation on the line, so they want to make sure they are bringing you qualified workers,” she said.

Multiple factors likely are contributing to Maine’s increase in temp agency employment, said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

The first factor has to do with economic recovery, he said. It is typical during periods of economic recovery for employers to use temp workers, because they are reluctant to commit to hiring permanent employees.

In that way, increased use of temps in the workforce bodes well for the economic future, Colgan said.

“Eventually, a lot of those temp jobs will get converted into permanent jobs,” he said.

The second factor is a national trend toward using more temps on a long-term basis because they are cheaper than permanent employees, Colgan said.

Still, he said, it will take a couple more years of economic recovery to know whether that trend will last.

A third factor could be having an impact in Maine, he said: the state’s aging population.

Older residents are likely to sign up with a temp agency for part-time or temporary work in order to supplement their retirement income or have something to do.

Colgan said it’s possible that a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to offer health insurance to temps could have a chilling effect on the use of temp agencies, but that provision has been delayed a year until 2015.

Meanwhile, Walsh said Maine’s increase in temp work is a mixed blessing.

“It’s great for the employers and for the temp agencies, but not necessarily good for the temporary employees,” she said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: canderson@pressherald.com

Twitter: @jcraiganderson


Correction: This article was updated at 12:32 p.m., Sept. 3, 2013, to correct the spelling of the last name of Idexx Laboratories Director of Worldwide Talent Acquisition Ann Marie Meyaard.