Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.
"I think temporary hiring is less useful a signal than it used to be," says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. "Companies aren't testing the waters by turning to temporary firms. They just want part-time workers."
The reasons vary. But economists and business people say the main obstacle is that employers lack confidence that the economic rebound has staying power. Many fear their sales and the overall economy will remain weak or even falter as consumers spend cautiously.
Companies also worry about higher costs related to taxes or health care measures being weighed by Congress and statehouses. That's what Chris DeCapua, owner of employment firm Dawson Careers in Columbus, Ohio, is hearing from clients.
DeCapua says corporate demand for temporary workers has surged. That's especially true for manufacturing-related jobs involving driving forklifts, assembling products, packing merchandise and loading it on trucks.
Yet that demand hasn't spilled over into a demand for permanent workers. And DeCapua doesn't see it turning around anytime soon.
"There is so much uncertainty, and when there is uncertainty people and companies hold onto their checkbooks," DeCapua says.
Companies "don't want to hire permanent workers and then have to turn around and get rid of them six months later," he says.
DoubleStar, a human resources firm based in West Chester, Penn., hired two temp workers recently to join its 60-person staff. CEO Harry Griendling says in normal times he would have hired two permanent employees.
But Griendling has doubts about the strength of the recovery. He's not ready to absorb the risk and cost of adding permanent workers.
"When I look ahead for the next three to four months, all I see is murkiness," Griendling says.
For years, economists have viewed the hiring of temp workers as a bridge between no hiring and healthy job creation. It meant that employers would soon expand their permanent payrolls to keep up with rising customer demand.
After the 1990-1991 recession, for instance, gains in temporary hiring starting in August 1991 led almost immediately to stepped-up permanent hiring. And after the 2001 recession, temporary hiring rose for three straight months in the summer of 2003. By September, employers were adding full-time jobs each month.
Now, because the recovery seems more tepid and fragile than previous rebounds, temporary hiring may have lost its predictive power, economists say.
"I think a lot of it is manufacturing," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "It may be that manufacturers are relying more on temps than in the past because they are more unsure about the ongoing demand for what they produce."