Issue Date: December 12, 2011
After taking a few years off from chemistry to be a stay-at-home mom, Marissa Mandell wondered how she could reenter the workforce. “I sent résumé after résumé to companies, with no luck,” she recalls. Then she enlisted the help of a scientific staffing agency, which helped her obtain a temporary position as a chemist at AgraQuest Inc., a biopesticide company in Davis, Calif. “At the time, temp work was the only option available to me,” says Mandell, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and several years of work experience in industry. After she’d been on the job only two months, Mandell’s supervisors were so pleased with her work that they offered her a permanent position as a research associate in November 2011, which she gladly accepted.
With the U.S. economy still slouching out of recession, out-of-work chemists at all levels of education and experience struggle to find jobs. Given the scarcity of permanent, full-time positions, some chemists are taking on temporary work as an alternative. Not only can a temporary job help bridge the gap between permanent positions, it can also supply résumé-boosting skills and experience. Moreover, temporary jobs can help chemists get a foot in the door at companies where they would like to pursue permanent employment.
Contingent jobs—which include temporary positions, freelance work, and consulting gigs—are the first to be cut at the onset of a recession and the first to reappear during economic recovery, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contingent workers make up a growing segment of U.S. labor. Littler Mendelson, a San Francisco-based law firm specializing in labor and employment law, predicted in 2009 that contingent workers would make up 50% of the U.S. workforce added after the recession, and as much as 35% of the total workforce.
“In this economy, employers want to maximize their resources,” says Frank DeSafey, vice president of Sequence Staffing, an executive search and staffing company in Roseville, Calif. DeSafey’s company specializes in recruiting workers for the industrial chemical and environmental sectors. “They don’t want to take on the overhead of a permanent employee and the burdens associated with that, so they move toward temporary positions,” he says.
With the glimmer of better economic times on the horizon, many companies want to beef up their workforce, but they’re still skittish about committing to permanent staff. Companies usually don’t have to provide benefits such as health insurance to temps or pay employer taxes. In addition, they can adopt a “wait and see” approach to assess a worker’s job performance and the availability of future funds for permanent staff. When the temporary contract ends, usually after four to six months, an employer may offer the worker permanent employment, a situation known as contract-to-hire.
In other cases, companies might recruit temporary workers for short-term projects or to meet seasonal demands. Some companies hire temps to fill in for permanent staff on medical or maternity leave. In these situations, a worker has little or no expectation of converting to a permanent position when the temporary contract expires.
Lisa LePome, a chemist with a master’s degree and more than 20 years of work experience, has held a string of temporary jobs since being laid off in 2007. She’s currently halfway through a two-year stint in the material analysis lab at Hewlett-Packard in Fort Collins, Colo. LePome enjoys working at Hewlett-Packard and would like to obtain another temporary gig there when her two-year contract is up, but company policy specifies that workers must take a 100-day hiatus between temporary jobs. This policy aims to prevent blurring the line between temporary and permanent employees. If a company denies benefits to long-term employees under the guise of temporary workers, it could be targeted by lawsuits. “So now I’m looking at temporary jobs to fill in between my temporary jobs,” LePome says. “I’d prefer that to unemployment.”
Like LePome, some chemists take temporary work mainly to pay the bills until the elusive permanent position comes along. But others may deliberately choose temporary positions to broaden their skill set or experience. Chemists might accept a temporary position to learn a new skill, such as mass spectrometry, that will increase their appeal in the job market. Or they may use a temp position to refresh skills after being out of the workforce for a while. “I was a little nervous about coming back into industry because I wasn’t sure that my skills were still good,” Mandell says. “But in my temporary position, they kind of threw me in and said, ‘Get going,’ and it was reassuring that I was able to impress them.”
Having industry experience under one’s belt, even in a temporary capacity, may help convince employers that a chemist is ready to hit the ground running. “Typically, postdocs have a difficult time making the cultural transition from academia to industry,” says Alan Edwards, vice president of the Americas Product Group at Kelly Scientific Resources, a global staffing company based in Troy, Mich. “Our clients in industry are telling us that the cultural fit is the most important thing. They’re not doubting that people are smart with their science, but what they really want to know is: Are you going to be productive from day one and integrate well into the company culture?”
In addition, temporary work provides a good opportunity to “test the waters” of a particular industry or company. “If you come from a straight chemistry background, you don’t always know what area you want to go into,” says Reena Dhana, a temporary-recruitment specialist at CK Science, a staffing agency with headquarters in Chesterfield, England. “Temporary positions allow you to try out different areas, such as the environmental or pharmaceutical sector, to see where you feel most comfortable.” Likewise, temporary work allows scientists to assess the intangibles of a position such as company culture, work environment, and coworker compatibility before making a long-term commitment.
Novelty seekers may enjoy the constant change in scenery, research focus, and personalities that temp work provides. “I like going to new places, meeting new people, and finding out how different labs work,” Mandell says. Some people use temporary work to travel or explore new regions where they might want to relocate someday.
“The baby boomers are not retiring,” Edwards says. “They in fact enjoy the type of workforce where they can work four months in Boston, four months in Phoenix, and take four months off.” Because Kelly Scientific recruits workers on a global basis, employees may have the opportunity to move within or between companies across the U.S. and around the world. Dhana notes that CK Science can help U.S. citizens find temporary work in the U.K., though they must have a U.K. work permit.
Although job seekers can search for and obtain temporary positions on their own, many find working with a staffing agency useful. Staffing agencies do not charge job applicants for their services. Instead, companies pay staffing agencies to advertise open positions and identify promising candidates. To establish a relationship with an agency, job seekers can either respond to an ad listed by the agency on a jobs website or they can initiate contact by phone or e-mail. After an applicant submits a résumé to the agency, a recruiter typically contacts the job seeker to discuss the person’s career goals. Then, the recruiter adds that applicant’s information to a database from which the agency selects qualified candidates for open jobs. Being part of the database also gives job seekers access to positions not advertised to the general public.
On any given day, Kelly Scientific lists 200 to 300 temporary positions in chemistry in the U.S., in many different fields and requiring varied levels of education and experience, Edwards says. Ph.D.-level senior scientists are in high demand as consultants, according to DeSafey. Most of the jobs offered through staffing agencies are in industry. At Sequence Staffing, for instance, 60% of temporary positions are in industry, 30% in government or academia, and 10% in nonprofit organizations, DeSafey estimates.
“In the digital age, there are jobs posted on the Internet, but you can’t really talk to anybody about them,” DeSafey says. “It can be very frustrating these days if you’re an unemployed individual with skills, because it feels like you’re sending your résumé off into a black hole.” But by working with a staffing agency, chemists can develop personal relationships with people who can help them find a job, he says. “My advice is to get on the radar screens of people at recruiting firms or the human resources personnel at some of the big companies.” He suggests job applicants reach out by telephone, LinkedIn, or, if possible, in person, touching base by phone every one to two months.
Staffing agencies can help job applicants tailor their résumés to appeal to the areas of greatest job growth. “We know what skills are in demand,” Edwards says. “For example, over the past 10 years there’s been a decline in general chemistry, but increases in areas such as materials science and nanotechnology, where we’re seeing double-digit growth.” By knowing where the jobs are, applicants can highlight sought-after skills and incorporate keywords in their résumés.
After a staffing agency prescreens individuals for a particular job, the employer interviews the pool of qualified candidates before selecting a person to fill the position. This person becomes an employee of the agency, not of the company where the job is based. The agency handles payroll and offers benefits such as health insurance. When the temporary contract expires, the agency will often help the worker find another job. If the company offers the worker a permanent position, the person’s employment transfers from the agency to the company.
According to LePome, benefits offered by staffing agencies vary widely. Some offer only bare-bones health insurance plans and no paid time off. She advises job applicants to research benefits packages before committing to a particular staffing agency. “If you see a job opening that’s being offered through an agency, there are often other agencies trying to fill the same position,” LePome says. “If you can find an agency to work through that gives you a better benefits package, I think it’s worth doing.”
Signing a contract with a staffing agency is not a decision to take lightly. Many temporary contracts stipulate that an employee can’t work for the same company for a certain period of time after the temporary job ends unless the agency grants permission. For example, if LePome wants to obtain another temporary job at Hewlett-Packard within 18 months after her first contract ends, she must use the same agency or ask the agency to release her from the contract, a request that could be denied. “In the future, I’ll try to negotiate contracts so at the end of the temporary position, the agency doesn’t own me,” LePome says.
The European Union recently introduced legislation aimed at protecting the rights of temporary workers, called the Directive on Temporary Agency Workers. In October, the U.K. implemented a similar measure, the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR). AWR ensures that after 12 weeks on the job, temporary workers will have the same rights to salary, hours, holiday time, and sick pay as do permanent workers in a comparable position. “AWR will undoubtedly impact the temporary recruitment industry in the U.K.,” Dhana says. Critics of the controversial measure contend that the regulations will force companies to cut temp positions or to shorten their durations to 12 weeks.
But for now, in the U.S. at least, temp work is common practice. DeSafey notes that temporary positions are increasingly important for inexperienced chemists because companies are outsourcing many entry-level permanent jobs overseas. “We’re all used to thinking that we need to have a permanent job, but the world is changing around us,” DeSafey says. “People are just starting to wrap their heads around the different ways to work, and I think temp work is going to be a big part of the future.”
Edwards agrees. “The 25-year career at one company doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “It’s a transient workforce. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a very healthy and rewarding career.”
Still, chemists like LePome aren’t giving up hope that a permanent job will someday come along. “I don’t know anyone who’s working as a temp who wants to be a temp,” she says. “Everybody I know would prefer stability. It comes down to, am I going to pay the mortgage, or not?”
Yet in a job market where instability is the only constant, perhaps the best advice for those in temporary positions is to try to make lemonade out of lemons. Temporary work can provide skills, experience, and contacts that help a chemist land a permanent job. For the lucky ones like Mandell, a temporary job can turn into a lasting position. And for those temp workers who find that they dislike their work environment or research duties—well, it’s only temporary.
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