With employers scrambling for workers, they're increasingly viewing summer hires not as temporary laborers to meet a seasonal surge in demand but as a tantalizing pool of potential employees.
As summer jobs season enters its final weeks, more businesses are making permanent job offers to their seasonal workers, many of whom are accepting them, staffing experts say.
The efforts are happening across age groups and industries, from high school graduates in restaurant and retail jobs to college interns in white-collar fields such as accounting, marketing and data analysis.
"Companies are looking at this type of labor to play a bigger role," says JoAnne Estrada, global head of contingent workforce solutions for staffing firm Randstad Sourceright.
"You're building a pipeline of talent for the future," says Amy Glaser, senior vice president of Adecco Staffing.
That 4 percent unemployment rate is making for a tight labor market in which available workers are scarce, the staffing officials note. In May, there were more job openings than unemployed people for just the second month in the past two decades, according to the Labor Department. And 2.4 percent of all workers quit jobs, typically to take another one, the largest share in 17 years.
As many as 15 percent of summer workers are being converted to permanent staffers across industries, Glaser estimates, up from 1 percent to 2 percent in past years. And up to half of college interns are accepting job offers, though many can't start until they graduate next spring, says Tom Gimbel, CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago area staffing firm.
In late May, Jill Whitehead, 37, took a part-time temporary job at market research company Focus Insite, helping complete a rush of projects while other staffers took summer vacations. Whitehead's task was to round up about half of the total 45 participants in a focus group. Instead she quickly corralled all 45.
"She was obsessed," says Jim Jacobs, president of the West Chester, Pennsylvania-based company.
Within a few weeks, Jacobs offered her a long-term contracting job that will turn into a permanent project manager position as soon as she completes training.
Jacobs is struggling to find workers, with only two of every 10 applicants qualified for his openings, down from four or five previously.
"I said to myself, 'Somebody's going to hire (Whitehead) so I might as well be the one,' " he says.
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For Whitehead, the job is a godsend. For seven years, she freelanced part-time as a project manager, executive assistant and website developer. But the single mother couldn't snag a full-time job because she needs to largely work from home to take care of her four children.
When she heard Jacob's offer, "I was ecstatic," she says, "I love getting people" for focus groups "and arranging the project. It makes me feel on top of the world ... I'm going to retire from the company."
Many firms also "are branding" temporary jobs in new ways, Glaser says. In lower-wage industries – such as restaurants, retail and hotel – recent high school grads may be offered permanent jobs as cashiers or waitresses but provided training that places them on a track to be shift managers. And they're sometimes given performance reviews during their summer stints, she says.
In office jobs, college interns are granted broader opportunities. Jobs traditionally limited to research and data gathering could involve more data analysis, Estrada and Glaser say. And clerical workers who show a spark may be offered training and a job in sales or customer service, Gimbel says.
In warehouses and call centers, workers of all ages brought on to meet seasonal peaks such as the back-to-school sales season are being asked to stay on, Glaser says. The trend is offering fresh chances to some temporary workers who otherwise would not make it through a standard corporate hiring gauntlet, Gimbel says.
At two Cat & Cloud Coffee cafes in Santa Cruz, California, co-owner Charles Jack typically makes a job offer to one of the five summer workers hired to meet peak traffic in July. This year, he converted four of the five summer hires – mostly college students or grads – to permanent employees in the cafes, a coffee roasting plant and administrative offices.
"It can be hard to find people," he says.
Lexi Smith, 26, a cafe worker, graduated from college with psychology and prenursing degrees before teaching seventh grade for two years. But she didn't like the workload and was determined to find a job in the area.
When her husband prodded her to do something she loved, "the only thing I could think of was the Cat & Cloud," she says. "After a long day of teaching, that's where we would go. The environment makes you feel good."
She started as a temp in May but Jack quickly offered her a permanent job. "She took it upon herself to learn, in detail, about all the coffees we serve" so she can answer customers' questions and remembers customer names and drinks each time they come in, he says.
For Smith's part, "It's a very creative environment" where she's encouraged to pitch ideas. She looks forward to eventually becoming a manager or perhaps a marketing specialist.
"I never would have expected this," she says.