That is raising new questions about the sustainability of the drop in the unemployment rate as workers cycle through jobs more quickly. It also leaves them more vulnerable to cycles of boom and bust — temporary workers are usually the first hired and first fired — and forces them to shoulder the responsibility of paying for health care and retirement.
“By definition, a good job was with a big company with big benefits where you could expect to work for your whole life,” said Carl Camden, chief executive of Kelly Services, one of the nation’s largest staffing firms. “The social benefits system relies on almost everybody working in a quote-unquote job. That’s not the case now.”
Though the shift has been gradually occurring for at least a generation, economists and academics say the Great Recession has hastened its arrival. Companies uncertain of the strength of the recovery have been reluctant to hire permanent employees, instead hedging their bets with short-term help. Meanwhile, workers are forging new careers as temps, contractors, consultants and freelancers in the face of a tight market for traditional jobs with 40-hour weeks and 401(k)s.
Consider the case of Kathy Westra, 57, of Silver Spring, who was laid off in 2009 from her job as head of communications for the Wilderness Society. For the next year, she devoted most of her time to hunting for a job. On the side, she took on a few short-term consulting projects to make ends meet.
But as more work came her way — and a “real job” never materialized — Westra stopped considering herself unemployed and started calling herself an environmental communications consultant.
“The competition was just so tight for every job that was out there,” Westra said. “After about a year, I realized, ‘Wait a minute — I’ve gotten through it and never fallen a day behind on my mortgage.’ ”
Officially, the government defines temporary workers as those hired by staffing agencies to fill short-term openings at other companies. They include secretaries and engineers and make up about 2 percent of the nation’s workforce. They are typically the first to be hired during an economic recovery, and their ranks have jumped 37 percent since the recession ended.
But there is a much larger number of Americans working as “free agents” who jump from project to project and might be employed by several companies at the same time. Little academic research has been done on these workers — the government does not track them — but private groups say their numbers have swelled since the recession.