If the way for individuals to survive in the new economy is to learn how to take care of themselves economically, why all the heat on temporary-employment agencies? That's what they teach people to do

Temporary-employment firms are getting a bad rap these days. Senator Howard Metzenbaum claims they exploit workers. Labor Secretary Robert Reich has called them a "false economy." Policy wonks bemoan the growth of temporary agencies and the number of people employed by them as an indicator that our catastrophic economy is going down the tubes. The burgeoning ranks of for-hire employees have less job security, lower wages, fewer skills, lower-quality benefits, and bleaker career prospects than ever before, the wonks say.

They are wrong.

I should know: my temporary-employment firm, MacTemps, a $40-million company with 6,000 temporary workers and 100 staff employees working each day, contradicts each assertion above. Temp agencies such as MacTemps actually serve workers in the new economy better than any dinosaur of the Fortune 500 past. Progressive firms such as ours are wholly different from the old-fashioned temp agencies that treated their people like second-class citizens; we build skills and then make those skills the added value for the temporary worker and for the client.

Temporary workers in the new era have increasing freedom to control their destiny. Instead of being dependent on the paternalism or goodwill of a Fortune 500-like company that offers benefits, periodic salary increases, and all the politics of a big company -- while dictating the career of the individual -- temporary workers get to choose their work weekly, even daily.

One of our employees said to me, "The best thing about being a temp is that it's the ultimate meritocracy. You don't have to worry about office politics. You don't have to worry about how long you have worked for a company. And you don't have to kiss up to the boss." That's because a temporary's career and job assignments are based entirely on skills. In our world, the more skills you have, the more you get paid. Or as Labor Secretary Reich likes to say, you earn what you learn.

Today temporary labor encompasses far more than the traditional office-typist and file-clerk duties. Those jobs make up fewer than 50% of all temporary assignments. Professional and technical temporary help are the two fastest-growing segments of the market.

Temporary labor as we reckon it provides enhanced job security because the new economy demands that job security rest with your skills, not with your employer. Call it portable job security.

While life may be scarier because workers have to worry about whether their job skills are competitive at all times, that concern is actually healthy for individuals. Corporate paternalism doesn't encourage employees to acquire new skills. Companies do not reward people for learning. Look at the employees now being let go under the guise of reengineering. Work for a computer giant for 20 years, and the company loses track of your job skills. When it lays you off, your skills may have become obsolete in the marketplace. Isn't it better to have more ownership of your own destiny?

As a temporary-help agency, we really have only one asset: skilled employees. All we worry about is that one asset. A good temporary agency assesses its prospective employees on real-world equipment, provides what added skills it thinks they need, and then goes one step further: helps them understand that they are responsible not just for the agency's reputation but for their own as well. They go into the field as respected, skilled workers in their own right as well as representatives of an agency. That's a big difference from the old days -- big.

The advent of the computer has made individual skills even more important for the current environment. Typing, filing, and reception chores were all one expected a temp to do in the old days, which made temporaries pretty much interchangeable. Not so today. The technical computer skills many temps now have make them valuable to clients and allow them to negotiate for compensation in a fair way.

MacTemps fills what some people call a niche market, namely, temporary help with a computer specialization. We provide graphic designers and desktop publishers, for example, as part of our temporary offerings. People with such skills are valuable, and we strive to make sure they are happy and that their skills are at the top of the field. One method we developed to attract and retain the best people is a comprehensive benefits program -- the best in the industry -- that includes quality health and dental plans, a retirement plan, vacation pay, paid holidays, and workers' compensation. Any good temporary agency should offer such benefits.

Because temporary agencies put such an emphasis on skills, they're much better at providing training than full-time work environments are. In fact, temporary agencies do a better job of training workers than many government agencies charged with general skills improvement. Temporary firms like MacTemps place 30% of workers seeking full-time jobs into such positions, a placement rate far higher than public skills and placement bureaus'.

It is the business of temporary-employment agencies to know the market and the new demands of the market. In comparison, most job agencies are hopelessly bureaucratic and would not know a hot job topic if their survival depended on it. Which in today's market it does. Those organizations have no incentive to get people working. We do. That's our job.

Temporary-help agencies enable workers to know their true market value. Because assignments last from two weeks to three months, every time an agency gets a new assignment, the temporary worker has companies bidding on his or her skills. The pay rate is in line with the temp's expertise. By contrast, if someone has worked for the phone company for 20 years, there's no correlation between market value and pay. The person may have gotten a raise every few years. When people are employed through a temporary agency, they get a truer picture of what their skills are worth.

In this scenario the "agent" concept is a new way of looking at our business. We represent people with skills. Like the talent agency Creative Artists Agency, we protect our workers' interests. We make sure they understand and know the market. One person may not be aware of the range of salaries and opportunities that exist for someone with his or her expertise, but an agency like ours does because it is our business to know. Every person has an "agent" working to maximize his or her opportunity.

Sad as it is to admit, companies today have to assume that the days of employee loyalty are over. They have to win their employees' loyalty every day because people can and do move on. Similarly, employees have to assume that the days of corporate loyalty are over because companies, too, move on.

That is another reason that temporary agencies should be seen as providing solutions rather than as problems to be addressed. Temporary agencies offer a new form of loyalty for the new era -- loyalty based on representing the employee's needs and on ensuring that the client gets the best, most qualified, and reasonably cost-effective temporary help available.

That is the model for a new system of labor that makes America as lean and competitive as ever, creates a layer of protection for workers, and recognizes their skills and individual worth and identity.

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John Chuang is CEO of MacTemps, a temporary-employment agency in Cambridge, Mass.