Jobs for now: secrets to scoring a great temp assignment

I’ve always thought of myself as a career-minded person, so for me, the one big downside to long-term travel and moving around a lot is not getting the chance to search for my dream role. Although I wouldn’t trade my travels for the world, living in four countries in the last four years (soon to be five countries in the last five years as Steve and I are planning to move to Australia after our New Zealand visas finish) means that I’ve done a lot of job-hopping. When you’re not staying in a place long-term, companies are hesitant to hire you for a position that offers career growth, and even if they were willing, it feels a bit pointless when you know you’re going to be moving on soon enough anyway.

Now of course, even if you’re not building your career, you still have to work (unless your parents give you a $1000 per month allowance and pay your rent, I guess). On working holiday visas, many choose to do seasonal jobs like fruit picking, while many others go for hospitality and tourism roles. For myself, I go for temp work.

I started doing temp work before I really started moving around. The summer between college and grad school I didn’t want to go back to a previous summer job like lifeguarding, but I also didn’t want to sit around all summer (nor would my parents have let me). My mom suggested I apply at a local temp agency and hopefully get a few days of data entry or call centre work. I didn’t really know what a temp agency was at the time, but off I went to fill out the paperwork, take the Microsoft Word and Excel (yuck) tests, and have a quick meeting with one of the recruiters. The very next day I got a call with an offer to be their office receptionist for three months until I moved to Ireland for school.

It turned out to be the perfect way to get a short-term role without too much hassle, so when I returned to the United States after my master’s and moved out to Seattle with no job lined up, I immediately started applying to temp agencies again. Sure enough, I was quickly offered a temporary role as a copywriter at an e-commerce site. After a few months as a temp, I was offered a full-time job and continued on at the company until I moved to Vancouver.

Because I’d had these positive experiences with temp agencies in the past, of course when I moved to Wellington and started looking for a job here, registering with recruiters was my first step. Within two weeks, I had been offered a four-week assignment (that ended up being four months… a fairly common occurrence for temp roles). I’m now on my second temp role here in Wellington, and when I move to Australia in November, I will definitely be registering with temp agencies there.

While there are definitely downsides to temping—limited job security, usually no health insurance—the flexibility and convenience can make it a perfect option for short-term and transitional periods. Here are some tips for getting a temp role and making the most out of your temping experience:

Your registration is your interview

When applying to a temp agency, you usually begin by submitting application paperwork and your CV or resume. While recruiters sometimes list current jobs on their websites, you are often just submitting a general application for any positions that may come available. Many agencies will request that you take a variety of competency tests for subjects such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, typing, and/or data entry. Then you’ll meet with a recruiter to talk about what you’re looking for, your skills, and so on. In many cases, this is your interview. Some companies will wish to interview before they offer you a temp role, but if they’re only looking for someone to fill in for a few days or if they have a good relationship with the agency they will often trust the recruiter’s judgment and give you the assignment sight unseen. That’s why it’s so important to make a good impression when you meet with your recruiter.

When I was a receptionist for a temp agency, I couldn’t believe the number of people who came in looking as though they’d just left the gym, the number of people who were rude to me (or the number of men who thought it was appropriate to call me “babe” or “sweetheart”), the number of people who were completely unprepared with their required documents (which were fully outlined on the website and which I always mentioned when people called to inquire about registering). Dress nicely, be polite, and come in ready to answer typical interview questions.

Tell the recruiter what you need

Recruiters get paid when you get paid. To my knowledge, it’s very common that an agency charges a company a dollar more per hour than you get paid (e.g. if you’re making $18 per hour, the agency is charging the company $19), which goes to the agency for placing you. Therefore, it is in the agency’s best interest to find you a role. Moreover, it is in their best interest to find you a role in which you will succeed—if the company extends your assignment, that means more money for the agency, and if they choose to offer you a full-time position that means a solid pay-out as well.

When you meet with a recruiter, give them as much information as you can about what you’re looking for, and this will help them when they’re considering who to put up for an assignment that comes along. And while it’s definitely understandable that you might want to say you’re open to anything or that you might feel the urge to take the first offer that comes your way, it’s also fine to tell the recruiter that you don’t think a position is right for you, as long as you can offer a reason why so they can take it into account when looking for other roles. If the time frame doesn’t work, if they pay isn’t ideal, if you just don’t think the job responsibilities suit your interests or skills, that’s okay; be open and honest with your recruiter and it will have the best result for everyone involved.

Be proactive in your role

Temp roles often tend to be a little more laid-back than full-time jobs. If you’re filling in for someone who is on leave or if you’re just in a position for a short time, companies understand that you might not get the level of training that a full-time employee would, or that you might not be quite up to the speed of someone who is in the role as a career. And it’s easy to have the mindset of “Well, I’m only here for two weeks, so what I do here isn’t that important.” I like to think of a temp assignment as being like an internship—it is what you make of it. Depending on the assignment and the company, you may or may not have an opportunity to ask for more responsibilities or to learn something new, but if you do, it can help make the role a chance to add to your skillset instead of just a paycheque.

Sometimes, temp gigs have the potential to turn into longer assignments or even full-time jobs. Being proactive can help you get that extension or offer. Before I started my temp assignment in Seattle, the recruiter let me know straight off the bat that a number of temps at the company had converted into full-time employees. Going in with that knowledge motivated me to take on extra work, show extra enthusiasm, and make it clear that I was interested in continuing on beyond my temp contract. After a few months, I was offered the job. Although temp assignments don’t always have an opportunity for advancement, it’s still always good to go above and beyond anyway, because word of a praiseworthy job at one assignment will surely get back to the recruiter and lead to more roles in the future. In my case, starting fresh in a new country, having a positive temp experience in New Zealand under my belt means that recruiters know I can fit into NZ work culture and also gives me a reference that isn’t many time zones away.

Other tips:

  • In cities with multiple recruitment companies (Wellington apparently has over a hundred), sign up for more than one agency, but not too many. I registered with four when I arrived in Wellington. It gives you options without going overboard. You can always register with more later if nothing’s coming up.
  • Stay in touch. When you’re looking for work, don’t bombard recruiters with phone calls but it doesn’t hurt to check in every other week or so to let them know you’re still available and keep you on their radars. When you accept an assignment, let recruiters at other agencies know that you’re not currently available, and keep them updated as to if your assignment is extended or when you become available once more.
  • Add short-term gigs to your CV. Unless you’ve got a limited job history, most people don’t tend to include temp roles, summer jobs, etc. on their resumes. And if you’re looking for a full-time role, it’s true that a company doesn’t usually need to know about two months you spent after sophomore year answering phones at your friend’s father’s office. But showing any amount of experience in a role for which a agency is placing temps can give you a leg up in qualifying for an assignment.
  • Brush up on your MS Office skills. As I mentioned before, it’s likely that you’ll have to test in Word, Excel, and maybe Outlook if you’re applying to an agency that places mainly office jobs. This testing is usually annoying, frustrating, outdated, and unfortunately, necessary. It doesn’t hurt to run through some basics before taking the exam.
  • Look for agencies that concentrate on your field. This depends on where you are—around my hometown, temp agencies placed clerical/admin roles and labour roles, and that was it—but if you’re in a bigger city, there are often recruiters that focus on specific industries. Tech recruiters are extremely common for both temp and full-time roles, but there are also agencies that place for jobs in healthcare, engineering, business, and other fields. I got my Seattle job through a creative agency. So if you’re in a specialized field, it definitely pays to look for a recruiter who caters to your industry.

Whether you’re new to a city, searching for flexibility, or just looking to make some quick, short-term money, temping is a great way to get out there and get working. I hope these tips can help you find a role that’s right for you!


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