Temp jobs play bigger role in Atlanta economy than rest of country

Patrick Hill works on his laptop at his apartment home in Sandy Springs. The CPA is now a full-time employee at Home Depot, but he worked contract jobs for a decade. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Patrick Hill works on his laptop at his apartment home in Sandy Springs. The CPA is now a full-time employee at Home Depot, but he worked contract jobs for a decade. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Katie Turner usually feels like part of the team at the big consulting firm where she’s worked more than two years. Until she doesn’t.

She goes to the office every day, logging 35 hours a week alongside regular, full-time employees in her division.

But her check comes from the staffing agency that placed her in the job. She doesn’t get paid for sick days or vacation. She’s been told she can’t travel with co-workers for training. The otherness really hit home when she didn’t get invited to the company holiday party.

"It just gives you an overall sense that you just don't really belong here," said Turner, 26. "It's a weird feeling."

She has some company. About 4% of metro Atlanta’s workforce has a temporary job through a staffing agency. That’s twice the national average. Fulton and Cobb rank in the top 10 among U.S. counties, according to government data crunched by Emsi, a labor market analytics firm.

Temp-agency workers span everything from construction to catering to coding. They don’t include “gig” workers who walk dogs, freelance or drive for Uber or Lyft and don’t get those jobs through an intermediary. Economists are still trying to figure out the size of that workforce, although it’s growing.

The percentage of temp-agency workers — and their outsized role in Atlanta — has risen slightly in recent years. That’s despite a national unemployment rate that reached a 49-year low in April, which should give workers more negotiating clout to snag full-time jobs.

Several factors seem to be limiting the leverage of workers who would prefer steady paychecks and benefits like paid time off. They include automation, offshoring, weakened unions and more slack in the workforce than the jobless rate suggests. Only 62.8% of Georgia’s working-age population was employed in February, compared with 68.9% in August 2008, before the full impact of the Great Recession.

Shock absorbers for the economy 

For the economy, temps are a lubricant and an accelerant. Rapid improvements in technology mean workers can be matched with a company almost instantly. And in an increasingly uncertain economy, a company that has demand for its services right now can get the people it needs — without committing to keep paying them if demand drops.

“Staffing creates shock absorption,” said Sean Ebner, president of PeopleReady, a Tacoma, Wash.-based staffing company.

If business suddenly slows, workers go away. If business is strong, a company can take temps who have proven themselves and hire them — no muss, no fuss, no ads or interviews, Ebner said.

In the last three months of 2008, more than a quarter-million staffing jobs evaporated. When the economy improved in the last three months of 2009, the U.S. added more than 126,000 staffing jobs.

For some workers, temping can be a way to control their own schedules or try different careers. But it can also present a financial challenge in which workers forever feel like second-class citizens.

In 15 years of temping, Jeremy Williams has seen both sides.

Williams, 47, has worked in stadium concessions, banquets and other big events. Those slots sometimes have paid more than on-the-payroll jobs he’s had. Other times, weeks passed when there was no job to go to, or full-time coworkers treated him poorly.

And while he often hopes short-term placements will become long-term jobs, that has rarely been the case. “It’s better, really, to have a regular job,” he said.

But it did happen this time. A contract job as a banquet captain at a hotel recently became full-time — fortuitous, because another contract job, in food service, had just ended.

For companies too, there are negatives. Temps tend to have less loyalty and institutional knowledge. And short-term, temps are more expensive, especially if they use a staffing agency which splits the total fee with the worker, said Tom Bodeep, global head of managed services for North Highland, an Atlanta-based consulting firm.

That makes the temp a kind of human barometer to measure company confidence. "If you have a need that's really a long-term need, you probably should make that a full-time job," said Bodeep.

Why does Atlanta have more temp workers than other cities?

Of roughly 1.6 million working people in the four counties of metro Atlanta, about 62,000 are temps, nearly half of them in Fulton, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., Fulton has the seventh-highest concentration of temps and Cobb ranks ninth, according to Emsi. The nation’s highest share is Kent County, Michigan, a manufacturing-laden area that includes Grand Rapids.

Experts have varying explanations for why Atlanta is so temp-intensive.

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, argues that Fulton in particular is a matter of geography.

Fulton has a glut of offices, hotels, warehouses, a huge airport and small manufacturers. “We have a high concentration of the things that are traditional uses of temp jobs,” he said.

Erin Hatton, author of “The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America,” said the reason could be construction, which has surged in Atlanta in recent years.

In times of rapid growth, builders may not have enough people on the payroll. “And day labor is more likely to be located in urban centers,” said Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo.

Mike Dunham, chief executive of Associated General Contractors of Georgia, said companies sometimes use temps in a crunch. But he also points to a shortage of skilled labor. “Anybody they can hire for long-term employment, they’ve done it,” he said.

Many tech positions are filled by people working short-term, said Gary Wood, CEO of Atlanta-based Matrix Resources, which places techies.

“People work on a piece of software and then move on,” he said.

The jobs often pay well — up to $100 an hour. The company has seen demand grow in recent months, especially for software engineers, technical database experts and project managers. “And the bulk of demand for us right now is in Fulton County,” Wood added.

Eventually, though, many temp workers seek something more even if they sought out temp work in the first place. Patrick Hill, a certified public accountant, had a condo in Midtown and a job at Coca-Cola when he decided to swap it all for a nomadic life temping. For 10 years, he moved around the country, going from job to job.

But Hill, now 37, realized he didn’t have a retirement account or a way to get one. He enjoyed the variety and travel, but he felt like he couldn’t be promoted if he kept moving. About a year ago, he took a full-time position at Home Depot.

"I want to retire from somewhere," he said. "I feel like as a contractor, I could just work forever."

Patrick Hill works on his laptop at his apartment home in Sandy Springs. The CPA is now a full-time employee at Home Depot, but he worked contract jobs for a decade. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Temp workers by county

Fulton: 32,074

Cobb: 13,465

Gwinnett: 9,170

DeKalb: 7,057

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Share of workers who are temps

Fulton: 4.3%

Cobb: 4.2%

Gwinnett: 2.9%

DeKalb: 2.8%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Highest share of temps

1. Kent, Michigan (Grand Rapids)

2. Middlesex, New Jersey (Edison)

3. Marion, Indiana (Indianapolis)

4. Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Milwaukee)

5. Shelby, Tennessee (Memphis)

6. Sacramento, California (Sacramento)

7. Fulton, Georgia (Atlanta)

8. Dallas County, Texas (Dallas)

9. Cobb, Georgia (Marietta)

10. Orange, California (Anaheim)

Source: Emsi, Bureau of Labor Statistics