The Guerilla Temp : Part 2

Singers and other performers make up a significant percentage of many temporary agencies’ rosters. Why? Our lifestyle and the skills we’ve learned being in the opera business make singers and other performers perfect temporary employees. Singers are dependable; they have great speaking voices and presence; they aren’t intimidated easily; they are hard workers; they actually want good jobs that aren’t permanent–jobs that earn enough money to not only survive but flourish in between engagements.

With those facts in mind, it would stand to reason that singers would get the best assignments. But that may not always be the case–at least, not at first. In fact we may get no calls at all from an agency, in spite of great qualifications and a willingness to work immediately. Why does this happen? There are a number of reasons, which may or may not have anything to do with you or your skills.

If you’ve temped, you probably already know the drill. The agency gets a call from a client company; the agency calls you and gives you the details of the assignment; and you report for work. It’s basic, it’s easy to understand, and it works.

But there are some things going on behind the desk that you don’t know about, and they can affect which assignments you get. As someone who temped for several years before starting to work as an assignment manager, I know what surprises feel like. I thought I understood what kinds of pressures exist for the agency itself, but before I became an assignment manager, I only saw the tip of the iceberg. From angry clients to temps who seem to genuinely want work but somehow never actually show up to work, I had a lot of hard lessons to learn.

Briefly, here’s how it really works. The client company calls the agency and requests a temporary employee. Far from being a friendly, easy transition, this is often a last-minute, frantic call from an employer who has little, if any, idea what skills the temp should possess, or how long they will be needed. If it’s a large organization with many temps at any given time, they may have only the vaguest idea what you will be doing. All the client knows is that somewhere along the line, the cogs have gotten out of kilter, and the machine of their organization isn’t running smoothly. They want help. They need help. But much more often than not, they will have little idea what kind of help at all. “Just send someone NOW” is the most frequent call.

The assignment manager looks for someone dependable, someone who has worked before, someone who is trusted. This means if you just signed on yesterday, you might not get the call. Why? How does that manager know you’re dependable? Because you said you were? They will usually save a new interim employee for an assignment that has less pressure attached, and these arenot nearly as common. The client’s high-priority, high-pressure assignment is going to go to someone who’s been with the agency a while.

So our assignment manager calls Jane Doe or Joe Schmoe, the experienced temps, and gives him or her the information. The manager then calls the client company again, with the temp’s name and expected ETA. Ten to 15 minutes past that ETA, the agency will probably call to see if Jane or Joe arrived.

Surprisingly, half the time he or she doesn’t arrive, and the client is furious. At this point things go from tense to frantic, and the search is on for a temp who will get there at the speed of light. This is the point where a new temp–you–might get that important first call. What the agency needs is a warm body to walk in the client’s door, and any typing or computer skills are just a bonus.

For every dependable interim employee there are twenty,or fifty, or a hundred, who say they’ll work and neverdo.

Ideally you will have some advance notice on temp assignments, and there will be none of this intense pressure. But know that your assignment manager might be trying to fill 15 or 20 Insta-Temp assignments simultaneously. Even the most assiduous manager has trouble remembering his or her own name by the time they’ve tried to fill 18 ASAP job orders by nine o’clock on a Monday morning. And this isn’t all an assignment manager does. They conduct interviews, check references, and may even do occasional sales calls when business is slower. At some times of the year, such as January and post-Christmas bill time, agencies may sign on hundreds of new employees. Will they remember you? Actually, the answer is often “yes.” But it’s tough to remember one person in particular when you see a hundred new faces in a week.

Temp agencies genuinely want to send you out on an assignment. That way everyone’s happy. The client has help; the employee has work; and the agency gets paid. No one is happy if you aren’t working.

But agencies have also learned to be cautious. For every dependable interim employee there are 20, or 50, or a 100, who say they’ll work and never do. Managers can be left holding the bag when a temp fails to show up for work, or worse, commits a crime in the workplace. As much as an assignment manager may try to maintain a sense of idealism–of truly wanting to help the people who walk through the agency door it can be hard to keep a positive outlook when you consistently have problems with the very people you are trying to help. In my own workplace I earned the nickname “Jerry Maguire” because of my willingness to haggle with clients over wages for our temporaries. I worked hard to get the best pay I could, and it showed. One employee’s position took over a month of dickering to finalize, but once it was done, she had a better-than-competitive salary and great benefits. But less than three months later, the client called and told me our temp had been missing work, possibly drinking on the job, and falsifying her time sheets. Nothing about this person’s background checks had hinted at this type of behavior. I could never find out what was really going on, but it left me feeling depressed, sick at heart–and extremely wary of trusting other temps again. The employee was terminated, and the client was very unhappy. There is pressure on assignment managers to keep clients happy. Client companies are constantly wooed by competitor agencies and losing or gaining a large client company suddenly can literally make or break an agency.

How can you make sure that you are the one to get the first call and work steadily? First, as simple as it sounds, be available. Be home to get the call. Next, show up and do your job. Although that sounds like a factor that goes without saying, in my work as an assignment manager no-show employees were a daily fact of life–the rule, not the exception. Start off on the right foot and keep going. Once you start getting assignments, take the values you use to build your singing business and put them to work for you in the temp industry. Be dependable. Be punctual. Communicate with your assignment manager if and when there are problems. Remember: It’s in everyone’s best interests that you work–you, your manager, the agency, and the client company.