A combination of Persian Gulf War jitters and a shaky economy is making America's small-business owners more nervous than ever. Business owners, already unsettled about the future, have been further jangled by the Pentagon's recent announcement that up to 1 million reservists may be called to active duty for up to two years.
Replacing valued employees is a problem, whether or not they are shipped overseas. One excellent way to solve labor problems is to bring in skilled temporary help. In fact, on most workdays, about 1 million temporary workers are on the job across the United States.
Many business owners still think temps should only be used when someone is away on vacation or takes time off for a family emergency. But many businesses rely on temporary workers to handle special projects, fill new orders or take up the slack until permanent workers can be found. Many temps are highly skilled professionals who can not only answer phones and type letters but do accounting, run complex computer programs or assemble products.
"The obvious advantage to using a temp is that you don't pay payroll taxes and you don't have to worry about benefits, insurance or Social Security," said Marc Spilo, president of Charles Spilo Co., a beauty supply distribution company in downtown Los Angeles.
Spilo, who frequently uses temporary workers to supplement his 40 regular employees, recently brought in a temp to update the firm's mailing list.
"You can maintain your staff fairly lean and mean in these times, but still get the work done without a tremendous overhead," Spilo said.
Although the employer doesn't have to pay benefits directly, that cost is built in, and so the hourly rates charged by temporary services are higher than for ordinary employees. In Los Angeles, for example, a temporary mail room clerk costs about $10 an hour, for example, and a highly skilled legal typist $20 an hour.
"No business has 52 identical weeks a year," said John Fanning, president of Uniforce Temporary Services, based in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "The beauty of using a temporary worker is you can turn on a dime."
As the economy tightens, business owners have become much more cautious about hiring new, permanent workers. By using a temporary worker, a business owner can not only evaluate that particular person's skills but decide whether to create a new position.
In recent years, more temporary service firms have recruited temps with technical and mechanical skills. General Industrial Technologies Inc., based in Valley Stream, N.Y., specializes in placing technical workers in a variety of businesses across the country.
"One client, a medical instrumentation company, has seen its business increase tenfold since the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War," said Jeff Pickett, West Coast sales manager for General Industrial Technologies. Pickett said he has also received requests for temporary workers from companies making parachutes, radar jamming devices, calculators and military clothing.
"We billed more in December than in the first two quarters of 1990," Pickett said.
He said many aerospace and engineering firms, forced to lay off skilled workers, have encouraged former employees to sign up with temporary service companies. This way they can bring them back on a short-term basis.
Bonnie Nash, president of Thomas Temporaries in Irvine, Calif., said temporary workers are an excellent resource for new business owners who are not ready to take on the responsibility of full-time employees.
Patty De Dominic, president of PDQ Personnel Services in Los Angeles, said software manufacturers are keeping her temps very busy.
"When times are lean, companies look for computer solutions to their manpower problems," De Dominic said.
Irwin Much, president of Human Resources Incorporated in Nashville said he wanted to help companies that lost valuable employees called to active military duty.
In late August, Much said his firm would provide temporary workers at a discount to any company that needed to replace reservists. In recent weeks, dozens of temporary service companies nationwide have made the same offer.
"I was just looking for something we could do," said Much, who has provided 30 temporary workers through the program.
In 1989, the nation's 3,500 to 4,000 temporary service companies generated sales of about $11 billion, according to the National Association of Temporary Services in Alexandria. The association offers a free booklet called "How To Buy Temporary Help Services." For a copy, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to NATS, 119 S. St. Asaph St., Alexandria, Va. 22314.
Jane Applegate welcomes letters and story suggestions from readers. Write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.