Peace Corps volunteer Lewis Barr had neither the time nor the money to look for a job after he returned to the United States last fall. When the Peace Corps' office of medical services offered him a temporary job answering phones, typing and filing, he took it because he could earn money while deciding whether to attend graduate school.
"I get a kick out of telling people that I'm a secretary," said Barr, a 25-year-old Georgetown University graduate. "I like to see how they react."
A few years ago Barr would have been a rarity, a man doing secretarial work; but today he is among a growing number of men joining the ranks of temporary office workers and taking jobs as secretaries, receptionists and clerks.
No figures are available that show exactly what percentage of the area's 30,000 to 50,000 temporary workers are males. The clear majority of temporary office workers are women, but some in the industry report that the percentage of men now could be as high as 30 percent.
"It's just phenomenal how it has grown," said Sue Rienderhoff, manager of Temporaries Inc., one of the area's largest temporary agencies. "These days if we interview five people in the office, two of them will be men. The number of men is absolutely increasing. The change is vivid."
She estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the agency's current 500 employes are men, compared with five years ago when 2 percent of its 300 employes were men.
Nancy Pastor, operations manager for TeleSec, another large temporary agency, said, "Definitely we are seeing an increase in the number of men working in office support staff positions."
Mary Beth Marsden, recruiting coordinator for TeleSec, added that about 10 percent of the company's 7,000 workers are men. "Now I do more recruiting at male seminars," she said.
Teresa Talamini, vice president of Temporary Resources, said, "The number of men has increased tremendously. I think men probably always had the skills. It just more widely accepted now."
Carol Hammond, administrative coordinator for Temporary Resources, estimated that 30 percent of the company's 400 employes are men, compared with 5 percent of 100 employes three years ago.
"Every year I have seen an increase in the number of men who have typing and word-processing skills," she added.
Officials with temporary agencies said the number of men is rising because of the increase in temporary jobs, the salaries, flexibility in hours and the increased use of computers for office work.
Russell Gann, who has worked for temporary agencies with word processors for three years, added, "Things have changed a lot over the past two or three years. The first reaction used to be, 'he must be gay.' "
Gann, who moved to the District two months ago, said he turned down several offers for permanent employment. "I turned them down because, even balancing in benefits, I can make more as a temp."
John Zwolinski, 21, a junior at Georgetown University, had just been turned down for a job at the school pub when he was recruited on campus by Temps and Co. Zwolinski signed up and now works from one to several hours a day stuffing envelopes, copying office documents, and handing out flyers, but the $5-per-hour wage keeps him satisfied.
"I think I've got a pretty good deal," Zwolinski said. "Most students make around $3.50 an hour, or $4.50 at the most."
Because of the high demand, an inexperienced temporary earns a minimum of $4 an hour, while those with typing and word-processing skills can make up to $12 an hour, said officials at temporary agencies.
The federal minimum wage is $3.35.
The demand for temporary workers rose dramatically after the 1982 recession forced many Washington companies to fire permanent staff members, according to Becky Tedesco, president of Ameritemps.
Now, she said, instead of hiring all full-timers, companies find it cheaper to hire a small permanent staff and use temporaries during peak work periods.
Crystal Ettridge of Temps and Co., added, "There is an economic boom going on right now but companies are still afraid to hire permanently. Yet they have the budgets and the work load, so they hire temps."
Judy Van Osdol, director of nursing at the Peace Corps medical office, said, "What I think is nice is a balance of male and female in the office. The office runs with better protocol. People are a little bit more polite when women are around and women don't gossip as much when there are men in the office."