• Advice

Should you work with a temp agency?

Temping is a relatively controversial practice within the freelance community: Some freelancers swear by it, while others would rather take a conventional job than temp.

So what are the pros and cons of working with temp agencies… especially those that specialize in working with freelancers?

Pro: it can help fill employment gaps

Temp agencies can be helpful for picking up work in your beginning days, or as an emergency measure – for instance, when you’ve had a big client fall apart.

The best ones tend to pay regularly (if not particularly well), and they don’t generally expect your loyalty.

It’s an okay way to make extra cash while looking for a better gig.

Join the Union (it's free!)

Become a member

Con: it doesn’t do much for long-term solvency

In my opinion, temp work is most effective when it is, uhm, a temporary measure for freelancers.

Most of the time, when you’re temping, you’re working under some kind of contract that forbids you from poaching the agency’s clients.

That means that a certain significant percentage of connections you make as a temp freelancer are moot.

You may indeed gain some valuable experience or even recommendations – the right temp job can be excellent for getting a foot in the door – but it’s not the same as a true freelance gig.

Ultimately, you’re expending energy that you COULD be investing in your own business.

That can add up to a real drain, especially when you consider the next big Con…

Con: you are almost definitely getting paid less than what you’re worth

When I was just beginning freelance work – and thus, struggling to pay my bills – I was very grateful to get picked up by a big temp agency.

I was pretty psyched to be getting regular hours, even if I was getting paid less than my usual rate.

Then, a supervisor unwittingly let slip what this temp agency was charging FOR my services. It was easily twice what I had EVER charged at the time – and I was making peanuts, comparatively.

That soured my enthusiasm pretty quickly.

Temp agencies make their money by taking a percentage of your earnings.

The more moral players pay their freelancers decently. Others will incessantly try to bargain you down, while charging top-dollar for your work.

Be especially vigilant when you possess an in-demand skill: Companies need you, and are probably willing to pay up… but agencies may try to take advantage of that need, without compensating you accordingly.

Do your research, and don’t fall down too far down the temp agency hole.

Pro: it’s easy

Whatever else you say about temp agencies, the best ones certainly make it easier to find and arrange work.

For a while, I worked with an agency that was flat-out awesome about setting up low-stress, temporary jobs on my “off” days.

I liked the staff. They thoroughly vetted every client, protected their temps, and they paid a decent hourly rate.

If you’ve got a particularly demanding lifestyle (new baby, crazy schedule, chaotic travel, uncertain commitments), it can be a real relief to hand over the gig-seeking and marketing to an expert.

It can also be a tremendous boon to get that paycheck on-time, every time, without having to hunt down flaky clients – and I always found the fact that they took out taxes upfront helpful.

Super con: they’re not awesome for the freelance community

Here’s a truth about temp companies who specialize in freelance trades: they make it harder for individual freelancers to find gigs.

The worst temp agencies represent a dark side of the gig economy - all of the so-called “flexibility” with very little stability or autonomy, few worker protections, and (most often) no benefits.

Bad-apple agencies tend to drive down rates and act as a fee-grabbing middleman, and YES – the most unscrupulous ones actually actively poach clients from the very freelancers they claim to represent.

A freelance friend once signed up to do a little temp work with a big agency, handed over her resume – and was contacted by a client who said the agency in question had called and tried to undercut her rates!

Whether or not you want to be a part of that system is your choice, and it may vary depending on your needs. Make sure you CAREFULLY research whichever company you’re considering getting involved with.

Working with a temp agency isn’t a cut-and-dry case of good or bad; there are certainly many pros and cons.

Temping has its ups-and-downs, but a bad temp company can be worse than no gig at all… and there are options out there!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.