Contract jobs offer opportunities to unemployed

July 21, 2010
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The good news for unemployment numbers is that they are not getting worse. Jason Palmer, economicanalyst for the West Michigan sector of the Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth, broke down the May statistics for West Michigan.

“Basically, what happens is, people are starting to get jobs related to summer travel, tourism and construction and things like that. That typically pushes employment up during the summer months, and that’s what we say in May,” he said.

“Unemployment rates have flattened out. It’s good news because we’re not seeing these large over-the-year gains in unemployment that we were seeing in 2009. Instead, we’re seeing rates level off or dip somewhat below 2009 levels,” he said. But it will take a long time to get back to 2008 rates. In May 2008, the unemployment rate for the Grand Rapids-Wyoming MSA was 6.6 percent. This May, it was 10.9 percent.

While permanent jobs may be slow to return, the temporary employment industry is seeing significant gains. EmploymentGroup, a staffing and managed solutions firm, has experienced strong growth in the first six months of 2010.

“(We’ve had) a big upswing in temporary help. People have had business coming back, so they’ve needed that extra staff, but there have been some uncertainties,” said Mark Lancaster, president and CEO of the firm. “We’ve had a number of people hired in through us, through our customers — just over 400 people in the first six and a half months, and that’s pretty much the same number we saw all of last year.”

Lancaster said that temporary help usually sees an upswing at the beginning of a recovery, as companies begin to need more help but are hesitant to hire permanent staff.

The industries where Lancaster has noted the most growth are automotive, food, aerospace, building products, and some defense and consumer electronics. He believes companies are reluctant to bring on permanent staff due to uncertainty in health care benefit costs, tax increases and the overall economic environment.

While the first six months of 2010 have been strong, Lancaster expects to see things cool off a bit.

“We see a bit of a slow-down. Part of that is that before, our customers couldn’t forecast out three weeks. Now they can forecast out three months,” he said. “Looking at the end of the year is kind of tough, but we’re looking at a bit of a slow-down — certainly not a double dip recession. We don’t feel a real recovery will happen until 2011.”

Until that full-swing recovery happens, Rebecca Westmaas, Grand Rapids branch manager for Accountemps, sees temporary positions as a great way for those out of work to build their résumés.

“Contract and temporary roles, especially over the last year or two, have become a great opportunity for individuals to enhance their skills and learn new things. It also given individuals exposure to companies that were not hiring over the last couple of years,” she said. “Doing contract roles will definitely give you exposure to companies where you would never be able to get your foot in the door by sending a résumé over.”

Another trend Westmaas has noticed is that the stigma connected to contract work is subsiding.

“There was such a negative connotation to contract work years ago; nowadays, it’s a common thread. More employers are using contract workers and more people are using contract employment to keep working,” she said.

Outside of the need to keep a paycheck coming in, Westmaas said some actually are turning to contract work as their desired mode of employment. What attracts them to work on a freelance basis are such perks as a more flexible schedule.

“The freelance term that used to just go with graphic artists, photographers and writers is now actually more and more common. You see a lot of people choosing to do contract work because they enjoy the flexibility,” she said.

“What used to tie people into wanting to be a permanent employee for a company was the aspect of benefits. More and more companies are restricting benefits; that added feature of consistent, permanent employment is not as attractive anymore. Permanent employment was looked at as stable. Well, the bottom dropped out for a lot of people.”

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