Sarah E Murphy Following Your Bliss
A Career Advice Column
by Sarah E. Murphy
writer, photoartist, entrepreneur and seasoned job-seeker

To Temp or Not To Temp
Posted: April 2004

So you need a job. Who doesn’t? The only people who think the job market is improving are those who have something to gain by saying so, or those who haven’t been looking. Trust me, I feel your pain.

Temporary employment is a great solution for so many different situations. Perhaps you’re in between jobs and want something while you conduct a career search. Maybe you’re a stay at home parent who wants to ease back into the work force. Or you’re just about to graduate from college and want to add some office experience to your ice cream scooping skills.

Temping is a great way to get a feel for a particular industry you’re thinking about entering. It is also a way to gain practical, on the job experience.

Temping is a great way to get a feel for a particular industry you’re thinking about entering. It is also a way to gain practical, on the job experience. Experience is like credit. You don’t have any, because you can’t get any. And you can’t get any, because you don’t have any.

It’s also a great way to find out what people are really like to work for, as everyone’s always on their best behavior in the interview or in the first few days of a new job. But soon the cracks begin to show. I recently found that out myself during a temp assignment. The first day my friendly boss assured me she was very approachable. “Don’t ever hesitate to come to me with questions.” To borrow from Shakespeare again, I soon found out she protested too much, and was anything but approachable. I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life in jobs that weren’t worth my time, and this proved to be one of them, so after three weeks I quit. And it felt great. Remember, it’s not only about them liking you. You must also like them.

One of the major benefits of temping is the fact that you set the hours. Along with job industry preference, you dictate your availability. Some offices only need someone one or two days a week, while others are in desperate need of full-time help. Maybe they need someone to cover a two-week vacation or perhaps a four-month maternity leave. Often mothers on maternity leave find they don’t want to return to the workplace, leaving a position available, so if a company decides they like you, you might end up with a permanent position.

Remember, it’s not only about them liking you. You must also like them.

The first temp job I ever had was one of the most positive and rewarding experiences ever. After the unfortunate situation at the radio production company, (see “The Interview: It’s Not All About You”) I went to a temp agency in Boston. Although I had minimal office skills, they were able to place me in a setting that required very strong people skills. I was able to quickly learn the other necessary skills like running a switchboard and maintaining a busy waiting area.

I went to John Leonard on a Wednesday, and after a typing and computer test, they informed me of a position at Northeastern University in the Office of Student Affairs. I jumped at the chance of being in an academic setting, and by the following Monday I was on the orange line reporting to work in the Ell Building of the Huntington Avenue campus.

My assignment was originally supposed to last three weeks, but NU kept extending it, and I ended up spending three months in that particular job. The office setting was warm and friendly, and within days everyone knew my name, even the Deans, who were always extremely busy. I immediately felt comfortable, never just a “temp.”

I professionally blossomed in that job because everyone was so encouraging. They appreciated things that often go unnoticed, like being friendly and respectful. Because they were so hands off, I performed my job with ease.

I immediately felt comfortable, never just a “temp.”

They were in the process of placing someone permanent in my position, and asked me if I wanted to be considered for the job. The full-time position would also consist largely of working with the budget, something that is neither my forte nor my interest. Although I loved the person who would have been my boss, the job itself wasn’t really up my alley. Therefore, I had to decline, although I had no desire to move on, for I had made many new friends, and sincerely enjoyed going to work every day.

As my time in Student Affairs came to a end, my coworkers and I were sad at the prospect of me leaving, and one of the Deans was kind enough to line up a job for me to begin the Monday after my position ended. I would be right across the Quad in the Disability Resource Center through the summer while they interviewed potential candidates for the position. I was thrilled to know I’d be at NU for at least the next few months, for I felt so at home there, and I loved the energy of the campus. Everyone was extremely down to earth, the faculty, students and staff. I really felt I had found my niche.

This job proved to be equally rewarding, but for different reasons. My responsibilities were extremely varied; I worked as a note taker for a deaf student, attending an Economics class with him and taking notes while he read the professor’s lips.

I also administered tests to learning disabled students who needed extra testing time, or simply needed to be away from the distraction of a classroom while they took their exams.

I was also required to oversee the co-op and work study students who worked in the DRC. This was another extremely enjoyable aspect of the job as I loved interacting with the students who were all bright, friendly, and hardworking. I was envious of their stage in life, wanting to return to those carefree days, so I lived vicariously as they shared many dorm room sagas with me.

They were in the process of placing someone permanent in my position, and asked me if I wanted to be considered for the job.

All of this was in addition to the everyday routine of running a non-stop switchboard and reception area, which eventually came to be second nature, much in keeping with the University’s motto “learn by doing.” I loved the hustle and bustle of such a high traffic area, and my days flew by quickly.

The same situation arose, and the DRC asked me if I wanted to be considered for the position. I loved my job, but it was more appropriate for someone with a Special Ed or American Sign Language degree, or at least someone who would agree to pursue those courses at night. Although I was extremely anxious to go back to school, I wanted to study Creative Writing or Education. (One of the perks of working full-time at many universities is the tuition reimbursement program.) I knew that ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit, so eventually another great assignment came to an end.

This time, sadly, there were no available assignments on campus, but I was told there was an opening at a chemical engineering firm on Arlington Street. Engineering? Are you kidding me? I thought in horror. I was so saddened at the idea of leaving my beloved NU, and couldn’t picture myself working among boring, stuffy engineers.

My stereotypical reaction was proven true the first two weeks or so, and the mostly male company would pass my desk and look at me oddly when I’d offer a friendly hello. But before long, they were laughing in the reception area as I impersonated some of our clients, while they made fun of my “weirdo” outfits when they came to pick up their faxes and packages.

My boss, Monica, the President’s Assistant, basically ran the place, a company of about fifty engineers. I was completely intimidated by her at first, but I soon learned to work extremely well with her, and came to enjoy her no nonsense attitude. We got to the point where we had an unspoken understanding. I screened her calls, which she in turn screened for Frank. Somehow I figured out who was important enough to interrupt her for, and who never to interrupt her for, and she appreciated that.

But it was so nice to feel wanted, as positive reinforcement is so lacking in the workplace. Too often you only hear what you’re not doing right, as opposed to what you are.

It was during this time that I decided I really wanted to find something at NU full time so that I could take some courses, as I was itching to get back into a classroom. I was also grappling with what career path to follow, chiding myself for not pursuing an Education minor in college so that I could teach, as I didn’t really know what other route to follow.

I had been told that it was often easier to find full time work on your own rather than through an agency, as the employer is often required to pay a large finder’s fee in order to release you from an agency. The average secretarial job isn’t worth paying that large fee, so I made the decision to become a free agent.

My sister and her husband had just moved to Honolulu for a job opportunity, and they urged my siblings and me to visit. My friend happened to be driving cross-country to California, and invited me to go along for the ride. I contacted my cousin in San Francisco and made plans to stay in the city with him and his family for a few weeks, where my other sister would meet me and we’d then fly to Hawaii.

I was up front with Monica and informed her of my plan, for I respected her and wanted to be honest. She always tried to convince me to stay, bribing me with Lindor chocolate which our clients always sent. However, we both knew if I wanted to go back to school, I had to move on. But it was so nice to feel wanted, as positive reinforcement is so lacking in the workplace. Too often you only hear what you’re not doing right, as opposed to what you are.

It was finally time for me to go, and on my last day of work they threw a going away party for me in the conference room with a bon voyage cake. They had taken up a collection for my trip, and presented me with an envelope full of money. After work we all went to the dive around the corner and had a bittersweet celebration.

I cherish my photographs from that party, Monica with her arms around me, the two of us crying, rosy cheeked from White Zinfandel. I was so touched by their generosity, and couldn’t believe they cared so much, considering I had only been there three months. Monica also gave me a bunch of books on tape for the long ride, and contacted her young nephew who worked in downtown San Francisco in a very unsubtle attempt at matchmaking.

Every temp job I’ve had has been its own unique experience, exposing me to new responsibilities and all sorts of different people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Although I was incredibly excited for my trip, I walked away from that job with a very heavy heart. Never did I think I’d get so attached to that place.

Every temp job I’ve had has been its own unique experience, exposing me to new responsibilities and all sorts of different people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.

If you decide to use an agency, remember you need to be proactive. They have something to gain by placing you, so use someone you feel comfortable with, an agency that really responds to your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You might find you need to shop around and conduct your own interviews before finding an agency you’re comfortable with. And don’t feel obligated to take the first job that is presented to you if it’s not what you had in mind. It’s okay to dictate what you’re looking for, but at the same time it’s good to be open to other possibilities.

If I had gone with my initial instincts and turned down the job at the engineering firm, I would have missed out on a wonderful opportunity. But instead I decided to try something different, with the idea that if I really hated it, at least it was only temporary.

I’ve dealt with various temp agencies and I’ve always gotten positive results. They’re usually able to find me more than one position in a short amount of time. But recently I learned the hard way that not all agencies have your best interest in mind. A recruiter from a local agency responded to my resume which I had posted on a job seekers website. She and I emailed back and forth a few times; she asked me to elaborate on my office experience and I told her I was interested in a particular receptionist position in Cambridge that was posted on their site, but I’d certainly be open to others. She was confident she could find me an appropriate assignment, and I made an appointment for the following week to go in for an interview. Usually if they like what they see in your resume, the interview is just a formality, so I took for granted I’d end up with a position.

When I went in for my interview her attitude was completely different, and I was a little taken aback when she started questioning me about what she felt were gaps in my resume. Despite my years of experience and many references, she suddenly seemed doubtful I’d be able to handle an entry level receptionist position.

If you decide to use an agency, remember you need to be proactive. They have something to gain by placing you, so use someone you feel comfortable with, an agency that really responds to your needs.

She tested me on a software program I had never used, and informed me of my poor score in the waiting room in front of her next appointment, telling me she’d be in touch if something came up.

I walked out the door suddenly feeling completely incompetent.

If something like this ever happens to you, don’t take it to heart. They didn’t deserve you.

Try another agency. You’ll find the right fit and once you do, you’ll be happy you held out for it.

- Sarah E. Murphy