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    Part One in a 3-Part Series

    Blast Boston Bureau

    I read somewhere recently that 30 percent of the American work force is now made up of temps and contractors. That sounds impossible but shortly after reading that figure I myself landed a temp job that gave me a chance to gather a little firsthand evidence.

    It was a "database maintenance" job for a financial company, which I took to mean data entry. Then I showed up for the job and was duly informed that I would be calling everyone on the company mailing list to verify that they were still there. The company mailing list was 3,600 names long. "But don't worry," my supervisor said. "A lot of them are duplicate entries, and the ones that don't have phone numbers you don't have to call."

    So over the next couple of weeks, I made phone calls to every secretary and receptionist in the financial services industry. And while not all of them came right out and admitted it, my guess, based on the responses I got, was that fully half of them were temps.

    My attempts to verify mailing addresses were greeted by the sounds of shuffling papers. More than once the poor disoriented minion at the other end would start to give an address and stop short: "I'm sorry, that's where I was last week." Requests for specific employees were often met by long silences and occasionally, "Who?"

    The gatekeepers of corporate America have become as anonymous and interchangeable as the machines that are rapidly replacing them. In fact, as I made my 3,600 phone calls, I actually grew to appreciate those irritating auto-attendants; at least they spoke coherent English, usually knew who worked there, and could transfer your call without disconnecting you.

    Not that the incompetence of the human receptionists bothered me, particularly. I had already been temping for several months, and the "database maintenance" gig was the first time I did not have to be one of those tenaciously chipper gatekeepers fighting off business partners, sales reps, and bill collectors armed only with an alien phone system and an extension list as indecipherably retooled as a manager's 15th inning lineup card. I actually sympathized with the hapless dunderheads unable to direct my call. "Don't worry about it," I often said, "I don't really know whom I'm working for, either."

    I don't suppose my experiences as a temp have been any more surreal or dispiriting than anyone else's. In fact, I know they're not, because a few of my friends have also been temping recently and they report exactly the same sorts of things. Someone should probably collect people's temping stories and make a book out of them. The result might provide an interesting worm's eye glimpse into the dark soul of corporate America -- George Orwell meets Scott Adams.

    In the meantime, I offer the following stories because, well, otherwise the only thing I could honestly say I got out of temping was ten bucks an hour and a few filched office supplies.

    Here's a simple social experiment you can try yourself. The only tools you need are long hair and at least one Y chromosome.

    Put on your best suit, tie your hair back, brush up that resume, and go in for an interview at Temp Agency A. During the interview, name-drop software programs like an Egghead circular. You'll be asked to take a typing test and one or more software tests, evil programs licensed out to employment agencies by Microsoft that purport to measure your ability to use Word or Excel based on how many useless features you know, like modifying grid lines and resizing toolbars. You'll be told at the end of the interview that it's a bad time of year to be entering the temporary workforce and, gee whiz, we really don't have many positions coming in now, but call us in a week and we'll see what's opened up.

    After a week, when Temp Agency A still hasn't found you anything, get a haircut. Then take yourself and your freshly cropped 'do to Temp Agency B. Present them with the same resume and take the same battery of tests. Does Temp Agency B now tell you that they're just bursting with unfilled positions and can you start right away? Of course they do. Because, of course, men with shorter hair make better temps. Substitute the words "men" and "hair" for "women" and "skirts" and I'm pretty sure the axiom still holds true.

    I had done temp work before but this was the first time I wasn't doing it in hopes of finding a permanent position. I had always assumed the temp-to-perm jobs were the exception, that most temps fill in for people on vacations or come in for short-term projects that require lots of Xeroxing, but to my surprise my agency has continued to deluge me with temp-to-perm offers. Having been through that mill twice before, I had concluded that it was perhaps the rawest of the many raw deals offered to temps. The temp agency offers such employees none of their own meager benefits because they don't expect them to stick around, and the "permanent" employer gets to delay their own benefits timeline for the two- to four-month duration of the temp contract. You can wind up working at the same place for six months before you're eligible for a sick day, or 15 months before your first paid vacation. People do this without going stark-raving mad, I guess, but I'm not quite sure how.

    Amazingly, one of my "consultants" at my temp agency once admitted to me the injustice of the temp-to-perm arrangement. "We try to discourage employers from doing that," she confessed. "We ask them to just buy out the contract, but many businesses feel it's worth the savings to keep the employee on temporary status even after they know they're going to hire them."

    "But it just builds resentment before the person's even officially been hired," I said, speaking from personal experience.

    "Exactly," my consultant agreed, apparently forgetting momentarily who she was talking to. "It reflects badly on the employer."

    "So why don't you lower your fees?" I asked. "Doesn't it reflect badly on you when all the temps you 'place' in permanent positions wind up quitting after a few months?"

    "Call us as soon as you know your availability," said my consultant, shifting back into the trademark tone of all '90s business relationships built entirely on self-interest; the aggressively bright timbre of bogus camaraderie. As soon as you hear that tone you can be pretty sure that the conversation is over.

    My first assignment was working at a high-tech start-up in Cambridge run by a bunch of gearheads from MIT. It was what my temp agency always refers to -- embarrassed to use the word "reception" when dealing with a male employee, I suspect -- as a "front-desk" gig: answering phones, sorting mail, light filing and typing.

    "Make sure you wear proper business attire," I was told. "The last guy we sent there was -- well, he didn't have really long hair, sort of a Dutch Boy cut -- and they didn't exactly complain about it, but they made mention of it. So I guess they're pretty button-down."

    When I showed up for my first day, the person manning the front desk was wearing jeans and sneakers. My frustration with the agency subsided when I learned that the guy, Troy, was a programmer. Programmers at small companies, I've learned, generally get to wear whatever they want. It's sort of consolation prize for earning less money in a more high-skilled position than the senior management, who are often dumber than meat loaf but have to show up every day in a two-piece.

    My last "real" job had been at a struggling startup where our Office Depot desks were practically stacked on top of each other and the "conference room" was bounded by black sheets of foam-core hung from the ceiling tiles. So I was amazed at the sheer square-footage of this MIT "start-up": storage rooms, spare offices, a fully stocked kitchen, a rec area with a foosball table. One of my first "assignments" was to team up with the CEO against the office's foosball masters, Troy and another programmer named Phil. The two of them had apparently spent many late nights gravitating between foosball table and workstation but somehow the CEO and I managed to win our first game. I was thereby immediately pegged as a "ringer," so foosball became part of my daily routine. While I blocked shots and rubbed shirtsleeves with the CEO, the company's third programmer, and only female employee, Yukiko, picked up the phones.

    Not that there was much to pick up. The company was still in its product development phase and had no market presence whatsoever. They had one of those man-behind-the-curtain names designed not to attract attention; I can't even remember it any more it was so forgettable, something like "Energy Technologies Research" or "Resource Technologies Group." Presumably if they ever came out with a product they would give it a flashier name, but for now they preferred to remain invisible.

    I was told repeatedly not to give out any information about the company, not even our mailing address, but only to direct calls. "Don't be afraid to play dumb," my supervisor told me. "Admit you're a temp and just say you don't know." That should go over well, I thought -- I'm sorry, I don't know our mailing address, I'm just a temp.

    My supervisor told me this over the phone, because he worked at the company's research lab, across town from the offices. The lab was the most super-secretive part of this secretive company, so no temp would ever be allowed to set foot there, but for some reason, they put this lab technician in charge of all the temps. Hence, I was largely unsupervised. Between phone calls and foosball games, I spent most of my time playing computer games, surfing the Net, and creating little cartoons in PowerPoint -- things like a little cartoon office worker standing in front of a lit bomb and saying, in a little word balloon, "Nobody told me this was part of my job."

    Coming Up Next: My Very Own Office in the Psychiatric Unit; Receptionist at the Bus Terminal; the Dating Life of a Temp