The Good Temp
Smith, Vicki; Neuwirth, Esther B.
[Excerpt] The story of the explosion of temporary employment and the challenge to the permanent employment contract in the last half of the twentieth century has been told many times. Researchers from''a variety of academic disciplines have written about it, as have activists who organize to help American workers maintain a decent standard of living and a modicum of dignity, and policy analysts who fear the degradation of the employment relationship that seems to be a foregone implication of temporary work. They have focused on different units of analysis: workers who desire permanent jobs but can't find them, workers who have lost out as companies have downsized and restructured, businesses and their myriad reasons for using temporary workers as a solution to their profitability and competition problems, and the temporary help service industry (THS) itself. The Good Temp takes a different tack to explain these developments in labor market institutions and behaviors. Specifically, we look at how the THS industry in the United States reinvented temporary work in the second half of the twentieth century and examine how individual THS agencies continue to manufacture and market this reinvented product—the good temporary worker—today. It is a customized, historically specific make and model whose marketability rested on two selling points: that temporary employment could be a viable alternative to permanent employment and that the workers on whom the system of temporary employment relations depends could be as good as permanent workers and sometimes better. The historical and social construction of "the good temp," we show, was embedded in THS-industry profitmaking strategies and relied on the diffusion of new norms about what constituted acceptable employment practice. Now entrenched, these norms underpin our current employment relations in the United States which many, if not most, of us experience as precarious and contingent, even when we have so-called permanent jobs.
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temporary workers; labor markets; employment; personnel policy; human resources