Is a temporary job a bad job?

Putting together some material recently for a conference presentation on temporary and contract workers made me ask whether it is time to rethink some of the assumptions made about temporary jobs, the people who take these jobs, and the employers that provide them.

Temporary work has often been bracketed – alongside self-employment and part-time work – as a form of ‘atypical work’, that is, anything that doesn’t fit the mould of a full-time job with an open-ended contract and employee status.  Like Wham! and shoulder pads, the concept is a product of the 1980s although these forms of work have a far longer lineage.  Private employment agencies have been around for the best part of a century and were a sufficiently established institution to deserve a Carry On film of their own (Carry on Regardless, 1961).

Underpinning many discussions of ‘atypical work’ have been an assumption that it is second class work, lacking many of the legal or other protections and privileges associated with ‘typical’ work and offered by employers seeking to take advantage of a weak economy to short change workers.  Perceptions may have mellowed somewhat as part-time work, fixed term employment and temporary agency employment are now all subject to regulation that prohibits clear cases of discrimination or exploitation (such as offering different rates of pay).  Concepts such as the ‘casualisation’ or ‘precariousness’ of work have tended to replace ‘atypical work’ in discussions of the modern labour market and are applied to people in ‘typical’ as well as ‘atypical’ work.

How do you measure temporary work?  In their regular Labour Force Survey, the Office for National Statistics asks people who are not self-employed whether their job is permanent or not.  Anyone who says their job is not permanent in some way is regarded as a temporary employee (note this is entirely self-defined and may not correspond to status under employment law).

These numbers have been remarkably stable over time (see chart below), forming about 6% of total employment (the red line on the chart).  Although numbers have increased slightly since the 2008/09 recession, there is no evidence here of employers switching to temporary jobs because of weak demand conditions.
Temporary jobs are not necessarily low status or low skill jobs.  An analysis by occupation (see chart below) shows that professionals form the largest single occupational group, and almost half of all temporary employees are in managerial or professional occupations.  Since 2001 there has been a marked decline in administrative and secretarial occupations, but the largest single growth area has been associate professional and technical occupations.

The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study surveyed over 2,000 workplaces in the UK with 5 or more employees and collected data from over 20,000 employees working in those organisations.  Of these, 6.7% of employees said they were temporary workers, split roughly 50:50 between those employed for a fixed period (such as those contracted for a specific project or to provide cover for a permanent employee) and those whose work was temporary but with no set end date (which might include agency temps and casual workers).  As we might expect, temporary workers are more likely to be relatively new to the workplace: whereas 21% of permanent employees had been employed at their workplace for less than two years, the proportions were 60% for those employed for a fixed period and 58% for those with no set end date.  But at the other extreme, 9% of those employed for a fixed period and 7% of those with no set end date said they had been at their workplace for over 10 years!  It was not possible in a self-completion survey of this type to dig deeper and we shouldn’t assume these people have been working on a temporary basis for all that time but it does remind us that apparently casual and contingent employment relationships can be long-term (and may have evolved into a permanent relationship in the eyes of the law).

There are also distinct age profiles to the temporary workforce.  Those with no set end date are disproportionately young (26% are 21 or under, compared with 4% of permanent employees) or over 60 (13% compared with 8% of permanent employees).  Fixed period employees are disproportionately in their 20s or 30s (53% are aged 22-39, compared with 38% of permanent employees).

The survey asks employees about their satisfaction with eight different aspects of their work (see chart below).  There is a clear gap between permanent employees and both types of temporary employees regarding satisfaction with job security, as might be expected, but otherwise the differences are not that great, especially for fixed period employees where satisfaction with the work itself, the opportunity to develop skills, the scope for using initiative, job influence and sense of achievement all exceed those for permanent employees.

This is not a one-off result.  According to the 2012 Skills and Employment Survey, overall job satisfaction was slightly higher for non-permanent employees than permanent employees (84% compared with 82%) with non-permanent employees being more satisfied about the work itself, the hours worked and their relationship with their manager.

There are some drawbacks to a temporary position, apart from the lack of job security.  While temporary workers are no more dissatisfied with their pay than permanent employees, the WERS data suggest they are less likely to receive group-related performance pay or contributions towards a pension (these data are pre-auto enrolment).

But the other side of the coin may be less pressure and conflict between work and other demands (in WERS those employed with no set end date are much less likely to say they never have enough time to get everything done or to have difficulty fulfilling non-work commitments due to work pressures).  And it may be the case that those brought in on a temporary basis have more tightly defined job roles that allow them to focus on using their specialist skills.  Or it may be the case that – being temporary and (often) relatively new – they find it easier to escape the low value or unfocused tasks that tend to lie outside formal job descriptions which permanent employees are often ‘volunteered’ for (or volunteer for because they want to progress).  The temporary nature of the role may mean that both employee and manager approach it with a different frame of mind.

This analysis is not like-for-like in the sense that it does not control for the different types of job carried out by permanent and temporary employees but it does call into question whether – from the employees’ perspective – these are ‘bad’ jobs.  Different maybe, and no doubt of mixed quality – just like other jobs. 

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