September 3, 2013

High demand for temp jobs in Maine has mixed meaning

Businesses are hiring workers because they are hopeful but not confident about the economy, experts say.

By J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

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

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Margaret Tibbetts, left, a Bonney Staffing Center supervisor, interviews Marlanda Wing of Westbrook during a recent job fair.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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