In 1948 Helga Tarver bought a stenographic agency for $100. For the money, she received "a fairly decent typewriter and a lot of stationery," she recalled recently.
Today, Tarver still runs Tele Sec Temporary Personnel Inc., the oldest company of its kind in the Washington area, and clearly one of the most successful outfits in a temporary-help market that may be as large as $25 million a year. The business now employs 48 managers, but the number of temporary and office workers employed by the firm may be its most protected trade secret.
Across the country, about 87 percent of respondents to a recent survey by The Office magazine said they use temporary help services. About 5 percent of those responding said they used temporary help "continually" and another 15.6 percent said they used temporary help "frequently."
Why? Slightly more than half of those in The Office survey said they used temporaries to help deal with peak-load office periods, the most frequently cited reason. About 42.2 percent said they used temporary help for one-time projects and about 39 percent of the respondents said they used temporary help as replacements for vacationing personnel.
Whether because of the relatively low cost of temporary help, or the need for associations, law firms, corporate offices and other institutions to meet government deadlines quickly, temporary office help services are widely used in the Washington area, which is served by four full-service Tele Sec offices and those of the more than 50 firms in the same kind of business that the telephone book lists.
Despite the growth of Traver's family controlled Tele Sec in the kaleidoscopic, office-crazy market that is the Washington area, she complains about the difficulty of finding help. "The work force was better trained then and more dependable," she said. "I think it's the schools. They get no real sense of responsibility from the schools today."
Not only is it more difficult than ever to recruit competent office workers, even in the temporary world, the cost of recruiting people in Washington is staggering, she said.
Recruiting costs in Washington are two to three times what they are anywhere else in the country, Tarver said. Part of the problem is the lure of government work and the accompanying benefits. "You don't have to work as hard in government and you're paid better than in private industry," Traver noted.
In the early days of Tele Sec, Tarver said a three-line newspaper advertisement brought more than enough responses. Now, she has to sponsor scholarships and job nights at community colleges around the area, and just asking young job applicants to write an essay on why they're interested in working for the company is difficult.
Typically, Tarver's employes stay on the job between one and two weeks, although she notes that orders here tend to be shorter than those elsewhere.
But to get those short jobs, the selling pitch is complex. The flexibility of being able to contract for help quickly is stressed in Tele Sec literature, as is the "freedom from potential equal opportunity, labor department, and other complaints and hearings" and the fact that a customer does not have to pay the various costs of employes' benefits.
Further, Tele Sec tells potential customers that using the service reduces paperwork by eliminating the need for applications and government forms. In an era when large national companies play the major role in the industry, Tele Sec also tries to sell its local roots.
Probably more important in the marketing effort is simple cost. According to Tele Sec calculations, it can cost a company with a payroll of about 625 employes less than 10 percent more to hire temporary help from outside than to sign up new people on their own.
But that differential can be "totally wiped out" by tax increases, while at the same time, the company benefits from the other factors, such as paperwork reductions, Tele Sec maintains.