Back in 1987, I was stuck. I had just come back to the United States after studying in Germany for a couple years, and I had to find a job. Not just any job, either. I had to find a real job.
I had four years of college – two in the U.S. and two in Germany – but I didn’t have a degree. I also didn’t have much real-world 9-to-5 working experience. Running a paper route, tutoring students, typing manuscripts for an automotive industry translator, and doing manual labor in greenhouses, restaurants, and styrofoam cup factories, on and off, since I was 12 years old had all been great work experiences and instilled a great work ethic in me, but they hadn’t prepared me for the adult-world realities of finding — and keeping — steady 9-to-5 work.
I had to find a job, though. I was an adult, and at last I could legally get away from my parents. We’d had a difficult relationship for years, and I was sick and tired of the constant pressure to conform to their religious, heteronormative, homogenized way of life. I could never do anything right, in their eyes, even though I knew my own way of doing things was the perfect way for me. I was queer (though I was a bit fuzzy on the details at age 22). I wanted to be a writer, an artist, an explorer. I didn’t want the drab, boring, predictable life they were constantly pushing me towards. All I’d ever wanted, since I was 12, was to be independent… to get up and go to sleep whenever I chose, to write books, make art, find out what the world had to offer. I needed to carve out a place that was all my own. And since I was (finally) of majority age, I was in a position to do just that.
I was setting up house in suburban New Jersey, and the rent needed to be paid. Of course, with an unfinished double major in German and anthropology, I’d been told that I’d never find good-paying work. To do well for myself, I’d have to have an advanced degree in a specialized profession. But I was out of money for school, and I needed to get on with my life, degree or no degree. I needed a car, I needed new clothes, I needed to put food on my table and pay my bills. But after searching the newspapers for days and weeks, I wasn’t finding any work that appealed to me, and I was having no luck at all with sending out my rèsumé.
I was at my wits’ end.
Then I remembered a guy I’d known when I was in high school. He’d been a few years older than me, and he’d been living on his own for a while. He didn’t have a “regular” job, but he always provided for himself in perfectly legal ways. How? He’d signed up with a temporary employment agency, and when he felt like working, he’d pick up the phone and give his agency a call. Sometimes they’d have a couple of days of work for him. Sometimes they’d have a couple of weeks’ worth. He wasn’t the kind of guy who really liked to work (he was pretty lazy, actually, and he admitted it), but he sure did like to make money. His employment agency kept him working pretty much whenever he wanted to.
So, I thought I’d try that, too. Not knowing what to expect, I went down to a branch office of the same national temp agency he’d used, and inquired about getting work. I could type, I could file, I could do just about any office task you put in front of me.
It worked! Within days I was working and earning a regular paycheck. And the jobs just kept coming. I worked at various and sundry offices around the area — hospitals, industrial distributors, and general offices. I don’t remember many of the details about my first assignments. They were pretty boring, as I recall. And that doesn’t matter. The most important thing was what happened as a result of those assignments.
You see, my temp agency offered free computer training if I worked for them for two solid weeks. What a great opportunity! Now, remember, this was in 1987, before computers had taken over the world (how times have changed!), but I had a feeling I should get as much training and develop as many skills as possible to make myself as marketable as possible. So, I put in my hours (I can do just about anything for two weeks) and signed up to learn a popular word processing program through a self-paced tutorial at the agency’s office. As a result of my increased skills, I got assigned to progressively more challenging assignments, and each experience offered me a little more opportunity to learn than the last.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the course of the past 30 years of working in the 9-to-5 world, the longest I’ve ever been out of work against my will was two weeks. I’ve taken time off, like the month I took off in 1992 to move across the country, the month I took off in 1995 to move back, and the first six weeks in 2006, when I started my own publishing company. I’ve changed jobs a bunch of times (as one does in this economy), and I’ve chosen to work part-time when my health was poor or I was perpetually burned out. But I’ve never had trouble connecting with great opportunities.
This is all because I got my start doing “temp work”. As maligned as it is, temping provides a huge number of benefits and advantages, especially for folks like me who have chronic health issues, problems with Autistic Burnout, and who get just plain sick and tired of dealing with neurotypical people, day in and day out. Time and again, I’ve parlayed my experience at short-term assignments at big and little companies into long-term positions, including lucrative full-time employment. With the right combination of social observation, practical skill, and an eye for opportunity, I went from being a jobless college dropout without much of a future, to earning six figures at a multinational financial services firm. And I did it in just over ten years, as my three-month temporary assignment turned into nine years of building technology with a leading financial services firm.
Temping made it all possible. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that if I hadn’t been temping most of the time between 1987 and 1999, it might never have happened. In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss why that was, and how I did it. I’ll lay out the kinds of steps I took to “trade up” from temp jobs to a steady work in a field that’s got plenty of opportunity. And I’ll lay it all out in common-sense terms that I hope you can apply in your own life. If I managed to do this, maybe you can, too. With the right attitude, approach, and techniques, I’m convinced other people can do it, too.
Bottom line, I wouldn’t be where I am today, without temping.