Study: Workers Should Bypass Temp Positions, Focus On Job Search

Stephanie Buckley, of Boston, second from right, has her resume reviewed by Shelly Piper, of Cape Ann, right, at the BostonHires job fair on Feb. 2. Job seekers received a free resume critique from Piper, who also provides job search coaching. (AP)

BOSTON — A new study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that lower-skilled workers who obtain temporary jobs are worse off when it comes to finding a permanent position than those who stay unemployed — but productive — during their job search.

MIT economist David Autor led the research. He says his study examines the best use of a job seeker’s time.

“It’s not that temporary help employment is particularly harmful, in any sense,” Autor said to Morning Edition. “It’s that it tends to crowd out other productive job search activities like looking for direct-hire jobs and doing the painful things of reading the want ads, making the calls, sending out resumes and going for interviews.”

Though he concedes that temporary work can lead to a permanent offer, Autor says that occurs in a minority of cases and most temporary jobs are exactly that: temporary. His research finds that honing in on direct-hire stability usually outweighs the shorter-term payoff of a temporary position.

“If workers put in the time upfront, and pound the pavement, if they’re able to land a direct-hire job, it tends to be more stable and to lead to other more stable employment over a longer term,” Autor said.

The research focuses on Detroit, where an employment agency there places less-skilled and less-educated workers in direct-hire and temporary jobs. Autor found that direct-hire job placements raise earnings by approximately 40 to 50 percent over a period of one to two years, whereas temporary help positions lower earnings by a “modest but meaningful” amount over the same time frame.

Although the study was based in Michigan, which, as of December, had a 14.3 percent unemployment rate, Autor says he would expect similar results in Massachusetts.

“I think we would get the same results with other less-educated, less-experienced workers,” Autor said. “Of course, those are the workers that are the most hard-hit by the current recession. Our results do not necessarily generalize to highly-educated workers doing professional and technical positions. They’re not in our sample, so it’s difficult for us to say with any certainty.

“But I do think the same general advice applies,” Autor continued, “which is temporary help jobs: good way to supplement income, sometimes you get your foot in the door, sometimes you get hired, but you should not think of them as a better way to search for a job than the old searching for a job.”

Click “Listen Now” to hear the full interview with David Autor.

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