The history of temporary workers

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


Northwestern Mutual was not unique. For instance, “a large Milwaukee bank” faced the rising challenge of data entry, but the cost of the machines to enter the data—“Comptometers”—was prohibitive. Instead of hiring more people to work during the day, which would have required more machines, the bank hired “several hundred temporaries [to work] during a short evening shift” doing the data entry on the machines that the permanent staff could not. The hours of expensive overtime became hours of cheaper temporary labor. The temps worked at night, and the bank “got double use out of expensive equipment.”18

Data migrations would not be one-time events. The migration from cursive to bits became an everyday necessity. Yet even as firms realized the ongoing need for data entry, they would continue to rely on large numbers of temps. In the short term, corporate policy might prevent the shift to temps in the name of “employment security,” but such policies could not resist the successful experiences of outsourcing office work. Temps enabled computerization, and Manpower capitalized on the opportunity by offering specialty courses in exactly these skills. Manpower’s “business training center” “specializ[ed] in the principles and techniques of operating data processing and other electronic equipment.” Despite its name, the business training center was more of a data-processing secretarial school than a true business program. Such electronic skills were in desperate demand in the 1960s as even smaller firms embraced the minicomputer.19

Automation had long been the key labor issue for postwar futurists, but they often posited an artificial opposition between machines and people. Arthur Gager in 1952, for instance, the staff director of the National Office Management Association, framed automation as the choice between flexibility and inflexibility, between people and machines. “Machines should be used instead of people whenever possible,” he said.20 Temps would be a kind of employee that would be neither a person (as defined as a worker with privileges) nor a machine. The automated office, even after the first round of data migration, required “human attendants” for the machines, preferably “around the clock.”21 Temporary labor would “be a way to achieve more economical use of the sophisticated electronic machinery that larger offices already are using for accounting, filing, billing, data-control work, etc.”22 As offices migrated their data, a line was drawn between workers who would receive the pay and status of a good job and those who would, literally, toil in the shadows.

As the economic stagnation of the 1970s set in, executives became increasingly receptive to Winter’s idea of using flexible labor to contain costs. In the late 1960s, a management consultancy did a study for Manpower that found that “workers were approximately 55 percent productive.”23 “This means,” Winter said, “that about half of the time the employee was at his or her desk there was a productive result.”24 The rest of the time the worker was getting paid for doing nothing. Whether or not this “55 percent” was true, the rhetorical effect was real enough. As Fortune had noted in 1968, “One of the paradoxical consequences of the private welfare state that unions and management have created to safeguard the permanent worker has been to make his temporary colleague look increasingly attractive.”25 Rather than the “I don’t care what it costs” attitude that ruled the 1960s, Winter believed, a new and ascendant “costocracy” would undo the expansion of the corporate bureaucracy.26

Winter envisioned a new balance in the work force in which temporary labor would play an essential part: “Many companies will work out a personnel program which will encompass 75 percent full-time permanent employees, 15 percent temporaries, and 10 percent part-time workers.”27 By the end of the 1960s, temporary labor had proved its worth as an alternative to the postwar promise of secure, well-paid work. But selling this new workplace arrangement required a thorough re-imagining not only of work but of the corporation itself.