A Temp's Temper Tantrum Takes the Cake

Posted: Sep 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Once upon a time there was a guy who had to work for a living. You can see that already we have the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy here.

It gets worse. This person also had to work as a temporary employee, a.k.a. "temp." So this isn't one of the Bard's minor tragedies either, it's "Hamlet" and "King Lear" combined. One is reminded of the famous lines: "To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that temps are heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd." And: "Here, sir; but trouble him not, his wits are gone."

Exposing flimsy arguments of sulky polemical opponents is like shooting clay pigeons off a bathroom window sill. Too easy, even ungentlemanly, but somebody's got to do it. Especially when you're dealing with a baseless smear of a whole industry, showcased in a major news weekly concerned to give everybody his turn.

So I did answer those weak arguments, on my little radio show Common Sense, and got some interesting feedback. Anon I did another program on the topic, and got more feedback.

Listeners did not accept my opponent's view that temping involves too much hard work, or that the necessity of being nice to clients is a terrible injustice, or that the American economy as a whole is just the shabby temp economy writ large. They did not sympathize with the theory that working for a living is the pits. Instead, many agreed that temping can be a good deal for employers and employees alike.

If you're an employer, hiring a temp allows you to avoid all the regulations and taxes you get socked with when you hire someone permanently. And you can bring someone on board for just a few days or weeks if that's all the help you need on a project.

If you're an employee, temp work can put food on your table between permanent jobs, or help you get your foot in the door of a company you'd like to work for permanently. Temping may even be the wage-earning method of choice for Muse-haunted types who want the time to pursue a career that isn't yet paying the rent.

But some people advised me that while temping may be swell for some, it's dregs and dross if you're a fill-in prison guard or public-school substitute teacher, or other such marginal element in a government-warped, unionized environment. There, regular employees can make out like bandits while the temps get leftovers, and little chance to advance. No doubt in many hyper-regulated environments, the advantages of temporary employment are fewer.

Others argued that there might not even be a temporary employment industry at all if our economy were a lot more free--a lot less taxed, less regulated, less burdened by roadblocks for employees and employers alike. Or at any rate, that the temp industry would be very different.

I don't doubt that either. In a truly unhampered market, persons can get hired in a day, fired a few days later if things aren't working out, and hired by another place the day after that. Nobody is punished if the relationship doesn't succeed, nor is the employer saddled with all kinds of burdens and threats for the crime of giving somebody an opportunity. In a free market, chances are good that when you really settle down with a firm, the match-up is a good one. And no need to cling to a job for dear life no matter how much you may hate it; other opportunities are always just around the corner.

The self-schooled economist Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993), author of the famous primer (start italics)Economics In One Lesson(end italics), once recalled his own job-hunting days as a young man in an era long before the New Deal went after businesses with sledgehammer and tongs.

"[W]hen I started out to get a job, I remember I had no skills whatever," he told Marty Zupan in an interview for (begin italics)Reason(end italics) magazine. "So I would get a job, and I would last two or three days and be fired. It never surprised me nor upset me, because I read the (start italics)Times(end italics) early in the morning, went through the ads, and I'd practically have a job that day. There was no such thing as a minimum wage at that time. There was no such thing as relief, except maybe there were places where you could get a soup handout or something....You had a free market. I didn't have the skills. But each time I kept learning something." With this staccato apprenticeship under his belt, Hazlitt began his journalistic career at (start italics)The Wall Street Journal(end italics)--at the ripe old age of twenty.

Of course, no matter how easy it is to get a job, once you get it, you must still then exert yourself. Ay, there's the rub.