Work Advice: No, temp agencies do not exist to find you a job

Learning permanent lessons from a stint at temping.

Reader: I recently went through a two-year period of temping after technology had made my existing job skills obsolete.

While I had no illusions that I was the best word processor in town, the agencies gave me the strong impression that my skills were more than passable. But I wound up working less than half-time, and having to draw down my savings. A few clients complimented my work and asked for me, so presumably I was competent. Accepting data-entry and even light industrial assignments resulted in very little additional work.

Recently, I received an inheritance and am planning to go back to school and make a career change. But I was so enraged by my temping experience that I sought informational interviews with a couple of new agencies and a former agency that hadn’t given me an assignment. Here are some of the comments:

“You are strictly word processing.” (I had been led to believe word processing skills would be enough.)

“We had a data entry assignment, but it paid less than you want.” (I shouldn’t have had to do data entry for chump change.)

“This region is a hotbed of software development, and the level of computer literacy is high.” (This should have been factored in when telling me what to expect.)

The agencies either didn’t know the job market, had poor communication skills or lied. Giving people false hope about their prospects is just cruel.

Karla: You’ve been through a demoralizing period, so I want to be kind — but I don’t know how else to say this: You seem to have the impression that the temp agencies’ priority was to find work for you. In reality, their priority was to meet clients’ need for on-demand staffing by keeping a full roster of temps — and the first-stringers on that roster either have all the skills the clients want, or have the humility and hustle to pick them up as they go.

Fortunately, an 11th-hour windfall has given you a way out and a chance to improve your ranking on the supply-demand food chain. To make the most of it, stop fuming over what you think should have been given and instead focus on building a future based on what you’ve actually received: big clues about technological obsolescence and “computer literacy,” as well as a hard lesson in proactive skepticism.

Education will help with the former; to hone the latter, start asking sooner, “Do their words align with my reality — and if not, how can I triangulate and excavate to get at the truth?”

And don’t rule out temping when you’re ready to road-test your newly acquired skills. Besides helping to pay the rent, temporary gigs in your chosen field are a good way to enter the market and make a name for yourself before you commit to an employer.

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com. Read more @Work Advicecolumns.

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