Hustlin’ By The Hour
My time in the temp economy
Between the ages of 20–25 I had many jobs. I worked on farms, in the mailrooms of NYC fashion houses, and I worked on hot-air balloons. I worked in warehouses shipping communications equipment for the State Department, and I spent months in New York City driving a truck through the five boroughs with a friend of mine, hauling theater sets and equipment, only to rush home sweaty to do my freelance writing. I received the bulk of this work, and many other jobs, through staffing agencies.
I’ve been told before to not talk about working with temp agencies in job interviews, and to not include them on my resume, and while I understand the reasoning (no stability, no opportunity to gain an expert-level, marketable skillset) that always disappointed me. There are a lot of intangibles to be gained at the bottom of the barrel: ability to adapt, coachability, and resolve are three that come to mind.
As a content marketer it is now my job to help startups tell their stories, and I’ve realized that my time in the temp economy is an important part of my own.
Here are three vignettes of the temp economy:
1) Warehouse Overtime
I got the majority of my summer jobs in college through temp agencies.
Anyone that’s ever been a temp knows that a lot of the jobs you get, especially when you’re still in school are mundane, the kind of work that a well-trained ape, or a child could do effectively. This can make the work horribly boring and may even affect your sense of self-worth, but there are some mental gymnastics that can be effectively employed. This is my shredder, you’ll think, there are many like it, but this one is mine. In your head you become the best paper shredder of all time, you can learn exactly how many sheets will fit through the slot, and the pace at which your shredding will be efficient, and not jam the machine. That may be objectively funny, but the fact is that it is a necessary component of a lot of temp work. Without it, your brain will atrophy.
I got a temp gig at a warehouse one summer, and while there are always some highly skilled workers in any warehouse — the forklift drivers, the logistics experts — there is likewise always a crew of workers whose responsibilities are to repeat the same simple actions over and over. As a temp I fell into the latter category, and for a month spent eight hours a day packing video-conference equipment into boxes, taping them up, and placing them on a pallet. When a pallet was piled high enough, it was time to shrink-wrap them. This was always an event. Guys would challenge each other to see who could do it faster, and there was a strategy that went along with it. Knowing when to let the roll go and when to hold on to it so the wrap would be taught, choreographing your steps so that you could move fast, stay focused, and not trip. The shrink-wrapping was ceremony because it was a chance to prove something.
This is my shrink-wrap, there are many others, but this one is mine.
A robot, or a flabby highschooler could, within an hour become an adroit shrink-wrapper, but the ceremony kept that truth at bay. The trash-talk, the excitement whenever a pallet was filled high enough, and the disappoint when, “Is it ready?” was answered with, “Just a few more,” were all just ribbons, the bells and whistles for our dance that got us through the day.
One day a suited executive came down to the warehouse. It was 6pm and he brought two brand new mountain bikes with him. We were all on our way to the door when he showed up, and told us he needed to mail the bicycles to his daughters. He said we needed to pack them up before we left. He walked away without waiting for a response, and it felt like the air had been let out of our balloon. Everyone there was paid by the hour, and working past six had never been a problem before, but something was very different about this request. We packed up the bikes, but we did it mostly in silence and worked as quickly as possible.
That moment stayed with me, there was a mystery around why things felt different when it came to the bicycles. He was the boss of everyone’s boss’s boss, and he’d asked us to do something so we did it. We made a few extra dollars from it. What was the difference between the video conference equipment and mountain bikes?
I realized that when the executive waltzed into our domain at the very last second of the day, and demanded that we do him a favor, to spent time on a task that had nothing to do with the business, he had broken the illusion. The request had cut all the music from our ceremony, revealing the futility of our dances around the pallets, and our pride in a pile of product, perfectly wrapped. We weren’t possessed of any important skill, we were not the kings of the vast warehouse domain, we were cogs in someone else’s wheel.
This is not my shrink-wrap, there are a million others, and none of them are mine.
2) Midtown Installation
New York, New York
“What’s your experience installing acoustic paneling?” The nice woman, my handler, as it were, asked me on my second morning working in the offices of a fashion publication on the east side of Midtown. I’d been hired to help them move offices, basically breaking down cubicles, putting the bits onto a dolly and rolling them down a hallway.
“Little,” I laughed. “To none.”
“Well have you ever used a drill?”
“Sure,” I said.
Ten minutes later I was standing by myself in a corner office, looking down through the windows onto a crowded intersection with a step ladder, tool box, and 10 pieces of acoustic paneling. I had a power drill in my hands.
“They don’t want people in the offices next door to hear them when they’re on the phone,” my handler told me. My assigned task had shifted suddenly from breaking down cubicles to installing 3 ft. by 3 ft. pieces of foam paneling in executive offices.
The first office was incredible. It was decorated and furnished in such a distinctive way that I fear describing it would be tantamount to giving away the occupant’s name. My handler had closed the door behind her when she left, so I sunk into one of the armchairs, took some pictures of the view, and considered my options.
It couldn’t be hard, right? All I really had to do was screw the things into the wall, but my surroundings were intimidating. What if I fell off the step ladder, landed on the desk that looked expensive enough to finance two month’s worth of a liberal arts degree, and broke it?
I’d been told repeatedly that they were expensive things — these panels — and I wondered as I mounted my ladder, with four screws between my lips, and a drill on my hip, if they’d spent so much money on the panels that they hadn’t been able to pay for a qualified install.
At $12 an hour — with no construction experience — I was a bargain.
I drilled a lot of holes. I drilled holes for anchors, then realized the anchors I’d been given were the wrong size. I managed to hang one up, only to step back and realize it was crooked enough to look horrible, and not quite offset enough to be justified as self-expression.
Eventually I wandered over to the union electricians working on the other side of the building and borrowed a level and a stud-finder. I managed to finish three offices that day, and eventually got the hang of it.
“When you come back in the morning,” my handler told me when I left that evening. “Don’t mention to the doormen that you’re doing any construction work…”
I didn’t think much of that comment until I realized the company was likely violating the building code, and some union law by not using a qualified, union worker for the job.
3) She Lost the Baby
New York, New York
When you’re temping for more than spending money, when you’re out of school, doing your best to make rent, not cover the keg deposit, you have to be ready for curveballs. Three days with no sign of work could end with a phone call at 8am, “Can you be Uptown in 30 minutes?” “How long will it take you to get to Queens?” “Any chance you speak Mandarin?” This can be fun, you may fancy yourself something like a surgeon who is always on call — that yeah, you can kick back with friends, but at any moment you might have to dash out in a flurry, because The City Needs Me. Just as most jobs start unexpectedly, many end without warning.
A few years ago I got a gig working in a Manhattan office. I was thrilled because it paid well, but was also of the coveted temp-to-perm variety. As long as I did my job well, I would be able to work at the company full time, and get those sweet, sweet benefits. I always do my job well, so I considered the company my new home from day one. It was my first big win in New York and I was happy in a way that only someone who has been unemployed in NYC for any period of time can comprehend. I even liked the work — it was almost too good to be true.
I learned throughout my time at the office that the position I filled was vacated by a woman who went on maternity leave, and had decided she would be leaving the company to spend time at home. I would be paid through the temp agency for six months, and then transfer onto the company’s payroll.
After three months at the company, I learned that the baby of the woman whose position I filled, whose former cubicle I occupied, had tragically passed away. Despite having never met the woman, it was the closest I’d ever been to a tragedy of that magnitude, and I felt horrible for the woman and her family. The day after I’d heard the news I was told that the bereaved mother had decided to return to the company, to her old job, and that it would be my last week working there.
One reason businesses hire temp workers is because they can be let go of easily. There is a need for temps and I was happy to fill it while I could. I relate this final anecdote just as an illustration of how unpredictable it can be when you’re hustlin’ by the hour, that while the temp in your office is never doing the most glamourous work, he is treading water in the great sea of the marketplace, a hungry man with an eye always on what’s next, what’s around the corner, and how he’ll cope, how he’ll land on his feet.