Are we building a 'McJobs' economy?

The temporary industry is being slapped around again. But is contingent work a microcosm for a bigger shift in career mobility?

The temporary industry is being slapped around again. But is contingent work a microcosm for a bigger shift in career mobility?

One of the first signs of economic recovery is the hiring of temporary workers -- as business increases, companies will contract for temps first to fill their needs, rather than commit to hiring more full-time employees. Companies added 52,000 temporary jobs in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and since July, temporary employment has been growing from month to month, totaling 117,000.

"McJobs," many observers sniff.

It seems more of our economy relies on "temporary" employment arrangements -- and this includes involuntary short-term job engagements. For many observers, "temporary" employment is a sign of something rotting underneath the surface of the economy. As Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, put it: "The lion's share of the gains came from (wait for it) 'temporary help services.' See what just happened? We subtracted thousands of real jobs — and replaced them with low-value, no-future McJobs instead. Want fries with that so-called recovery?"

Many people seeking full-time jobs have been forced to work in the temporary sector. In many cases, these types of jobs do not help sustain a viable standard of living. However, for others, temporary employment -- whether formally through an agency or on a freelance basis -- has meant increased career flexibility and mobility. It also provides a way to get a foot in the door of a prospective employer.

For many businesses, temporary staffing has been an agility strategy. But the "temporary" label always had mixed connotations in business settings, and even within the temporary staffing industry itself. One of my best clients last decade was The Olsten Corporation, at the time the nation's second-largest provider (behind Manpower) of temporary staffing. Within the highest echelons of Olsten, however, was a running debate pertaining to the term "temporary." Various terms such as "contingent employees," "assignment employees" and "just-in-time" staffing were used to describe these roles.

But the fact of the matter is that temporary is the mainstream of business strategy and business thought in many ways. Simply put, temporary is a fact of life for business. This is happening across the entire business spectrum. Many of today's projects are managed and completed by ad-hoc teams that form to address a problem, then disband as team members move on to the next challenge.

We see this at in the technology space as well. Computer equipment is disposable. In the past, most applications were "built to last" — their longevity and robustness was the most prized features about the application. However, nowadays, the most important thing about an application is that it is "built to change." The goal is not to expend time and energy building a system that will last through the ages, but build a supportive infrastructure that will easily accommodate change, and temporary or ad-hoc applications (now via the cloud), that can be swapped out as needed.

Temporary is a fact of life for professionals as well. Even those in "permanent" jobs may find themselves doing something radically different -- even if its still within the same organization -- within a few years' time. Some companies with forward-looking employment policies also acknowledge the "temporary" nature of job assignments, and are able to strike a balance between the need to build a good relationship with employees, while the need to change and shift roles according to priorities.

Kim Lamoureux, a corporate leadership development consultant, calls this rising tide "talent mobility," in which people are systematically moved to new areas as required by fast-changing business requirements. "One of the biggest success-drivers in enduring organizations is their ability to rapidly and transparently move people from role to role and function to function as business needs change," she observes. "To do this requires a new way of thinking about and managing talent."

For example, Lamourex says Deloitte, the large accounting and consulting firm, enables employees to build their own "customized careers," moving at their own pace through the ranks with various workloads and responsibilities.

Organizations are relying more on contractors, consultants, and contingent workforces to get things done as flexibly as possible. Even full-time employees are finding themselves more in a "internal contractor" role, moving on to and addressing opportunities and challenges as the business changes. As with computer applications, careers and job roles shouldn't be "built to last," but "built to change."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com