John M. Collard had a spectacular climb up the corporate ladder during his career in high technology, ultimately reaching the exalted posts of president and chief operating officer.

What a difference a slump makes. Now, at the age of 44, Collard's a temp.

His new job, which he began this week, is hardly typical of the clerical, secretarial or accounting positions normally associated with temporary work. He reports directly to the head of a company, and his annual salary is in the six figures.

Collard is what is called an "interim executive," a rent-a-boss who is participating in a novel twist on the area's softening labor market.

His type of temp is becoming more popular as cost-conscious companies look for ways to avoid hiring permanent staff, even when there is high-level work that needs to be done. At the same time, weakness in the defense, financial and real estate industries has introduced a number of former top executives to the world of unemployment, leading some of them to consider temp work for the first time.

"There are so many managers in a position where jobs are hard to find. ... It is not like your skills are readily transferable, like a computer programmer," said Collard, who lost his job as president and chief operating officer of Columbia, Md.-based Delta Data Systems Corp. in January. "The number of spots is far less and the search takes time."

Now, Collard is doing a full-scale operational review of RJO Enterprises of Lanham, a $60 million computer and telecommunications firm that is looking to move away from federal contracting toward private-sector work. He is on assignment for five months.

About 20 area executives, including Collard, have been placed in temporary positions by Morgan & Banks, an Australian headhunting firm whose Washington office appears to be the only outfit in the area in the rent-a-boss business. Not surprisingly, the firm pioneered the idea in Australia during a recession.

Executives looking for work became known to the firm through its "outplacement" operations -- a fancy word for counseling, retraining and job-hunting for those laid off from high-level echelons. The firm matched them with companies that were seeking managers through its executive-search arm.

The Washington operation has been running only for the last six months or so, but the supply of interested managers is not a problem: Some 300 to 400 executives already are in the temporary pool, according to Morgan & Banks President Paul Dinte.

Other temporary-service firms, though they deal at somewhat less stratospheric managerial levels, also report an increase in the demand for temporary managers. Lew Wessel, who runs a firm in the District that specializes in accounting personnel, said he is placing executives at $75 an hour. And he is having no trouble finding executives who want to be placed.

"People I would have been embarrassed a year ago to ask if they would consider a temporary assignment are now initiating the discussion," said Wessel, whose firm is called Don Richard Associates.

The temporary-executive program is getting underway in a region where managers are particularly likely to be looking for work. The Washington area succumbing to the same kind of economic slowdown that has hit Boston and New York, and a disproportionate number of the jobless are white-collar workers, according to statistics and employment agencies.

Some of the newly temporary executives took on the assignments because they wanted to, not because they had to. Jane Diven, a banker by training, was working as a stockbroker when she was contacted by Morgan & Banks. Today, she is working on developing new products and future strategies for NVR Savings Bank in McLean.

Diven said she didn't mind giving up the security of a regular full-time job because in return she got the chance to make a difference to an organization. And with the brokerage industry in a slump, she's actually making more money than she did as a stockbroker.

Mark Kressin, on the other hand, had been laid off from his job as controller for a construction company for several months before he was placed in a temporary spot. He is engaged in three special accounting projects for NIRSystems of Silver Spring.

"It works out well. I don't have to play company politics," Kressin said.

Still, Kressin and others said they would prefer more permanent employment. The temporary job generally ends after a certain time or after a project is complete, and another temporary position may not come along for a while.

However, the company and the executive do get a chance to look each other over in the interim.

"It is sort of try-before-you-buy," Collard said. "I have taken this assignment because I see a potential for a follow-on position."

In a way, temporary executives are stepping in where consultants used to tread, according to Morgan & Banks's Dinte. But while consultants tend to be hired to make recommendations, rent-a-bosses frequently make decisions and implement policy.

"An interim executive is very much a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, make-it-happen type of person," Dinte said. Under the program, companies pay a lump sum to Morgan & Banks, which in turn pays the executive an agreed-upon salary but no benefits such as health insurance. Morgan & Banks receives a fee of as much as 20 percent of the executive's salary.

Richard Otero, chief executive officer of RJO Enterprises, is laying out a hefty chunk of change for John Collard, but Otero said he believes he's getting his money's worth.

"We could hire someone for half what we pay an interim executive, but we would only get a quarter as much value," Otero said.