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Finding permanent, full-time work is never easy, but it gets much tougher in a labor market with high unemployment.

Some job hunters are trying to get hired by working through temporary positions. While the jobs do not come with the promise of long-term security, many temp workers hope to prove themselves indispensable and stay on.

Companies use temps to handle surges in work or to control labor costs. And they might end up hiring some of those temps when their assignments are over, based on how they performed. It can become an on-the-job tryout.

Randy Strauss, whose Buffalo-based StraussGroup places people in permanent or temporary jobs, says a rise in temp employment can be an economic indicator: employers will start out hiring temps, then switch to permanent hires as conditions improve.

“The temporary business is still an important piece of the whole picture,” said Strauss, the firm’s chief executive officer.

Workers go the temp route for different reasons. Some, like Brianna Courtney, hope to make a good impression and end up with a permanent job.

When Courtney, 25, moved back to the Buffalo area from Manhattan, she decided to look for work through an employment agency. She met with a recruiter at Superior Staffing Services and talked about what job opportunities might be best suited for her, based on her skills, interests and personality. “It’s almost like an interview [for a job] in itself,” she said.

Superior quickly lined up a job interview for her at First Niagara, where she was hired for a receptionist’s job at the Larkin at Exchange Building. Courtney said she was told the assignment was for three months; she enjoys working at the company and hopes to be kept on by doing good work.

Courtney said she didn’t mind entering her job with temporary status: “Being a temp isn’t holding me back at all.”

She welcomed a chance to show what she could do, rather than waiting for a permanent-job opening to surface. Courtney described her approach this way: “If they give me an opportunity to be a temp, I will make it happen from there.”

Employers have different reasons for using temps. They might be cautious about the cost of adding to their work permanent force. “They have the money in the operating budget for temporary help, but not permanent help,” Strauss said.

And by using employment agencies and temp workers, companies avoid the unpleasantness and costs associated with cutting employees when they make reductions, said Jerry Newman, chair of the organization and human resources department at the University at Buffalo’s School of Management.

Some companies have short-term projects and staff up accordingly. But when a task winds down, employers have a pool of potential new hires. “They get to pick and choose the best of the bunch, so to speak,” Strauss said.

Beata Eickhoff, First Niagara’s talent acquisition manager and a vice president, said the company uses temps to address particular needs, such as staffing a call center that helped customers with the transition from HSBC branches. She said it is not uncommon for First Niagara to keep some of its temp workers in permanent jobs after seeing how they perform. “It’s honestly the best reference for them.”

Competition to temp

With the area jobless rate still stuck just above 8 percent, employers can be selective, and competition even for temporary jobs can be stiff, Strauss said. “Right now, the work force is filled with very good people who are not working because of high unemployment. Today you’ve got really, really good people out there.”

Beating out the competition to get hired is one challenge; another is landing a job with a sense of security, which temporary jobs do not promise.

Even so, Strauss and others involved in job placement advise temp workers to never treat their positions as finite assignments. By showing up on time, committing to their work, and meshing well with co-workers, they improve their odds of being retained, he said. “You have to do things just like a permanent employee.”

Kristin Petri has worked for HSBC on a temporary assignment for about two months. She had a different assignment with the bank last year, and worked on a project with a different employer in between.

“I’m looking for permanent [work], but in the city of Buffalo, that can be a challenge,” she said.

Petri and her husband sold an East Amherst insurance agency to M&T Bank Corp.’s insurance unit in 2006. After a transition period following the sale, she took some time off. With StraussGroup’s help, she has found positions that suited her. “My background is quite varied. I’m a flexible candidate for a lot of different work that might be referred.”

Petri said the short-term assignments have also helped her update and expand her network of contacts.

The temp trap

Not everyone who takes a temp job wants to move into a permanent job. Some want only a limited-time position to make extra money, such as around Christmas to pay for gifts. And there are some who have the freedom and enjoy the variety of working temporary jobs at different employers, Strauss said.

Employers obviously benefit from hiring temps by keeping their labor and benefits costs and staffing levels in check. But are there potential downsides for companies that rely heavily on this approach?

Newman says yes. Companies risk losing good temp workers to other employers who offer permanent jobs. And temp workers might not feel as loyal toward or as invested in the company’s fortunes, he said; for instance, they might be less inclined to come forward with ideas to make a business run better.

Newman points to another potential trouble spot a local printing company encountered. About 10 percent of the company’s work force consisted of temp workers. Gradually, that grew to 25 percent. The increased ranks of temp workers were doing the same work as permanent employees but making substantially less, and they began grumbling about the disparity. The company decided to address the dissension by hiring the best of the temps as permanent employees and reducing its use of temp workers, Newman said.

Robert Durante helps people find jobs as a business services specialist with the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Development Consortium. One of the groups he works with consists of high-level professional job seekers. “Sometimes people even at that level need to take a bridge job” and accept a temp position, Durante said. For example, someone’s unemployment benefits may have run out, increasing the pressure to find a job.

Durante advises job seekers to meet with representatives of employment and staffing agencies. Employers typically pay a fee to such an agency to line up the workers they need; whether those jobs come with benefits varies from one situation to the next.

Many times, Durante says, employers have dedicated relationships with certain agencies, which creates another pathway to job openings. “An agency may be a good way to get a foot in the door,” he said.

Even if a permanent job opening is a job seeker’s ideal, Durante said he still sees value in taking a temp job to increase their experience and to network in a different way.

While the financial sector is one source of temp jobs, there are opportunities in a variety of fields, including accounting, manufacturing and engineering, recruiters say. The National Retail Federation estimated U.S. retailers will hire up to 625,000 temporary employees for the holidays, up from 607,000 last year.

As the holiday season approaches, Fisher-Price boslters staffing at a customer service center to answer questions from customers who buy Fisher-Price and Mattel products. Fisher-Price declined to say how many seasonal workers it hires, but it says about one-third of them are people who return from one year to the next.

Gary Cocchiarella, Fisher-Price’s director of consumer relations, said the seasonal workers receive training and are on the job well ahead of the holidays so they are prepared when the busy period hits. And the company has seasonal workers work alongside veteran year-round employees of the center to guide them in dealing with customers.

“It’s a very good mentoring relationship, actually,” Cocchiarella said.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com