Production: How to Effectively Manage the Use of Temporary Labor

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At one point or another it seems that we all have the need for temporary help in production. Whether it’s during our Thanksgiving preprint push or throughout the holiday season, a large majority of newspapers find themselves using temporary labor to get through. Most often we suffer from a labor shortage in the mailroom and distribution area, but this can extend to other areas of production as well.

There are many questions you need to ask yourself when it comes to use of this commodity, but the primary question should be, is the use of temporary labor truly an effective means to an end or does the expense simply outweigh the benefits?

Finding the Best Solutions

Several other questions need to be answered when it comes down to measuring the efficiency of temp help and how best to optimize its use in your operation.

Do you provide the agency with job descriptions so that they can better match the individual to the specific position? This isn’t something we all think about doing. Honestly, most of us call the temp agency, tell them how many people we need, when to report for the shift, and we’re done with it. Then, when the individual or crew shows up and isn’t close to being matched with the job, we use them for what we can and cost the company dollars in less than productive labor cost. I truly don’t think that the best way to manage is by the “warm body” measurement many have decided is acceptable.

I’ve found that the best way to effectively communicate your needs is to meet with the agency on your turf and go over each written job description so that the agency is prepared and can prescreen candidates to ensure they closely match the job description and enable you to maximize productivity. In this phase, you can discuss the position in detail to determine if there are any educational or special requirements and what other qualities may be needed to fulfill the position.

Recently, a temp agency emailed me a job description that was supposedly geared to a position we had open. They pulled it from the archives of job descriptions furnished to them. Reading over the description, I quickly realized that it had very little to do with what we needed and that because we didn’t provide them with updated information, they were attempting to fill the position with someone with the wrong skill set.

While they were reviewing the corrected job description I then sent along, they asked me why when it stated “two to three weeks to learn the basics of the position and three months to become proficient,” did we expect a temp laborer to be able to do the same job with perhaps one day of training and no prior understanding of the process? Great question, and one I didn’t exactly have a good answer to.

What about training? Training can be key to getting the most out of your temp labor dollars. Most of us spend about five minutes explaining the job to a temp laborer, then when they do a terrible job because they don’t understand what’s expected of them, so we either send them away and request someone new or put up with someone who isn’t productive and frustrates us to no end.

Take the time to work with the laborer as well as the agency. I’m not talking about a full blown training program that takes hours or days, but make sure the individual understands what’s expected of them and how to correctly do the job. Give them the opportunity to succeed and have a positive benefit to the company.

Bottom line, it’s about communication, a clear understanding of the job requirements and what you expect from the agency. You’re paying a premium for the convenience of temp labor. Working with the agency is critical in order to get the most bang for your buck.

Is there a clear expectation of schedules? Next on my list is providing the agency with an approximate schedule of what the temp worker should be expecting. Will this be a one-time event or a daily project for a particular period of time? In our business, schedules will always be approximate, but it’s only fair to provide a specific start time and an idea of how long the work day is and when it should wrap up. Temp workers are no different than you or I. They have lives and commitments and will be better workers when they have structure.

Finish times are dependent on how quickly everyone completes the job at hand, any mechanical delays and unscheduled issues we may have. These can sway the shift by an hour or more. While we all do what’s necessary to get the job done, we generally have a fair idea of when we’ll complete our shift. I firmly believe in communicating an accurate start-time to all employees and an approximate time we will cut them loose. Why would you not give temp labor the same courtesy?

Working with the Agency

How much advance notice does your temp agency require and does the time frame work for your operation?

While I certainly understand the importance of providing the agency enough time to adequately fill a large order (i.e. four or give temp helpers), it’s not always possible to give a lot of advance notice. If you’re out ahead of things such as employees going on scheduled vacation or upcoming increases in preprints, etc., you can often provide adequate advance notice to the agency, but more often than not this isn’t the case. Employees may call in sick, a client may surprise you with additional last minute work, or advertising may hit you with a surprise insert order. It’s truly not a perfect science. It’s important to have a good working relationship with the temp agency and develop a solid understanding as to what lead time is necessary based on the amount of workers needed.

We’ve all had those times when we’re depending on four temp workers to get us through the night’s production and only two show up. It’s not a pleasant thing. I’ve even had cases where we’ve had to order more temp labor than necessary because you know darn well that a couple might not show up and you’ll be short. It can be frustrating.

These kind of things end up with you losing confidence in the agency to deliver and often have you searching for another agency that can do a better job at filling orders and meeting the need. But it isn’t always the agency’s fault.

To spite repeated interviews and discussions with candidates, it’s not always easy to hire good employees who are hardworking, qualified and dependable. How can you expect the agency to wave their magic wand and deliver a handful of quality temp workers if you call them in the morning and need the workers that night? It’s not going to happen.

The All Important Pay Issue

Do the temp costs (dollars) benefit us or fall short of the gains in flexibility verses an employee?

Sure, temp labor is expensive, and we’re all aware that at times it may take two temp workers to match the speed and productivity of one of our more qualified employees, but you need to look closely at both sides of the coin.

On one side, you have the conveniences associated with temp labor. You have the flexibility that is built into temp labor…call them in when you need them; don’t use them when you don’t. Try this with an employee and they won’t stay around too long. And sure, you can find part-time employees, but try having them on call seven days a week and expecting them to come in with same day notice for minimum wage (which is probably what the agency is paying them).

Then, there’s the flexibility factor in “firing” a temp laborer. If the laborer doesn’t come to you with the right work ethic or is basically incapable of doing the job as required, you make a call to the agency and tell them not to send that individual back for the next shift. Furthermore, you inform them you still will need someone, so they send along a replacement and you have another shot at it with someone hopefully more qualified; plain and simple. No nasty drawn out process of progressive discipline, the time and challenge associated with terminating an employee, or the costs tied to the process. They don’t work, give me someone who will.

Now, on to the question of wages or in the case of temp workers, billable hours.

Upfront temp labor might end up costing you more per hour than you’re paying some of your newer employees, but wages alone are only part of the story. Depending on the benefits your company offers, the true cost of an employee can be significantly more. There are several different opinions on what employee benefits actually cost the company. Right or wrong, I’ve always measured benefits to be 26 to 30 percent of the employee’s hourly wage. Some say this may be low.

For example, take this into account and your minimum wage laborer in California that you’re paying $10.50 can really be costing you $13.65 per hour. You can probably pay a temp agency less for a similar individual.

On the other side of the argument is in all honesty where I’ve normally stand. Hiring employees’ verses temp labor tends to provide the employer with a more dedicated and loyal workforce. Temp laborers have a limited investment in the organization. It may be fair to say that normally they are there for one reason—the paycheck. That is understandable and I don’t fault them for that.

Transitioning a Temp Worker

In all fairness, not all temp workers are there just for the pay. Many of them are between jobs, eager to work hard and put food on the table; they’re looking for their next opportunity. They’re good, qualified, hardworking individuals who can transition into your employment, and if you’re lucky, you could end up with a solid addition to your team.

I’m always looking for great quality, qualified employees, and temp labor can be a breeding ground for them. As I’ve previously eluded to, and with no disrespect meant, you get to “test drive” the individual, check out their qualifications, their qualities, their work habits, their work ethic, etc. before you have to sign on the dotted line of hiring them. It’s a great deal.

This is where you need to have a clear understanding with the agency for when you can transfer an employee to your payroll. You might expect that the temp agency may be reluctant to give up a good employee, but this is where you may be surprised. Many temp agencies actually use the prospect of “gainful future employment” as a marketing tool to the temp worker. This can be to everyone’s benefit. The agency can recruit better qualified workers with the possibility of future employment rather than just a day labor job, the employee can certainly benefit by getting their foot in the door and getting to show their abilities to the potential employer, and the organization can benefit through the “test drive” period allowing them to avoid a bad hire.

At one location I was at, we asked an agency to send us over someone to help catch up on some cleaning in the pressroom. Work had picked up significantly and rather than incur overtime at a higher rate bringing in a temp worker made sense. Within a shift or two, we noticed this gentleman was one of the hardest workers we’d ever seen and after further discussion he seemed to have a rock solid work ethic.

Over the next few weeks, he showed up for work early, never missed a day, not only did what was asked of him but did it well, looked for additional work to do instead of having to be told what was next, etc. He ended up being one of the best temps I’ve possibly ever seen. Do I need to tell you who we decided to fill the next available open position with?

In summary, there are benefits on both sides and the relationship you establish with your temp agency can make your job easier and more productive or become an ongoing source of frustration.

If you decide to practice some of the ideas presented here, I firmly believe they will pay benefits to both you and the organization. Above all else, meet with your temp agency face to face to discuss your needs and clearly establish expectations.  It’s well worth the investment.


Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center with Morris Printing Services, LLC in Lubbock, Texas.

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