Like a lot of people, I was once a temp. My career was measured in one week, two weeks and sometimes months, all dutifully recorded on my timesheet which had to be faxed to the agency every week so I could get paid. If you were a secretary or PA back in the day when companies still employed people (mostly women) to type, file and answer phones, then there’s a good chance someone like me sat at your desk while you were sunning yourself in Torremolinos for two weeks. If you were a decent sort, you didn’t leave three months worth of filing for me to do and if you weren’t, you did.
This is not my beautiful life
So how did I end up being temporary? Having left school at 16 with no ambitions, a clutch of GCSEs and the ability to type, I became a secretary until student life beckoned at the ripe age of 21. Temping was the perfect way to earn money during my holidays – and as it ended up – during term time too. It was also a handy way to vet future employers. If the boss was an arrogant control freak or the job described as ‘busy PA work’ when it actually consisted of eight hours a day of waiting for a phone to ring then it was good to find this out before accepting a permanent job. It also provided an unparalleled opportunity to work in a variety of industries – I think I’ve worked in nearly everything from motor racing to timber research to education at some point.
There are, of course, downsides to temping. Like the time I turned up for a week’s work for a consultant at a large hospital who first put me to work sorting paper from non-paper in the office of a recently deceased colleague (who, it seemed, had specialised in hoarding). He then shouted at me for correcting a misspelt word in one of his letters:
‘If I write a word then I expect you to type it the same as I’ve written it, NOT insert your own interpretation of it!’
Or the time I worked at a company who had sacked the previous PA who had been very popular. Not one person spoke to me for a week. Or the manager who didn’t have anything for me to do so sent me out to the factory to fill paint samples until an irate factory supervisor reminded him about health and safety. Or the boss who had the surname Bond, signed all his letters as 007 and kicked a whole bag of putrefying rubbish across the office in a temper which was left for me to pick up. Or the one-man company who was always out but wanted someone to answer the phone and do literally nothing else but stipulated that I was strictly not allowed to read or look at the computer. Get an answerphone, dude.
‘Can you just..?’
I’ve also been told to collect cars, clean toilets, fetch dry cleaning, go and get keys cut, deliver leaflets, find dentists, fill envelopes, book restaurants and order wine. Not to forget the relentless, infuriating tea and coffee making, as though we were all back in the Mad Man era. One agency tried to make me work at a company with a manual typewriter. Given this was the nineties, I can only assume they wanted someone to test a museum exhibit.
It’s surprising how many people think it’s OK to be rude to a temp and equally surprising how many people who think it’s OK to sexually harass them but that’s a whole other story. It’s also surprising how many companies refuse to give temps work to do, seemingly preferring the indispensable person they’re paying £££+VAT for to sit and stare at a wall for eight hours. My first temping job in London saw me finding a villa in the south of France for the volatile owner of a head-hunting company as nearly the first thing I did after walking through the door.
There’s also the fact that people don’t refer to you by name, instead re-christening you ‘The Temp’, or perhaps snapping their fingers while trying to remember your name before wittily coming up with ‘Lisa MK2!’. There’s the people who ostentatiously record to the exact minute what time you arrive and leave (ignoring the fact that most agencies back in the day rounded up to the nearest 15 minutes) while making a point of telling you that you wouldn’t be able to slip a sneaky 30 minutes past them, even if that’s probably what you do to everyone else. I didn’t get holidays or sick days, so I basically never took them except for the time I had flu and the agency accused me of faking before sending my P45. Trust me, love, if I was capable of working, I’d be there because a week in bed means I have to borrow money to pay my rent.
Paid by the hour
How much did temps get paid back then? The first temp job I had paid £2.75 per hour and I aspired to £5.00 per hour which I managed to finagle from the company by working directly for them. A couple of years later as a student, I managed to scrape £6.50 per hour but this was exceptional – most jobs paid around £5.75. To give you some idea of the wage difference between the capital and the provinces, when I first temped in London (which was only about two years later), my hourly rate was £11.50 before I knew any better and rose to £15.50 once I did.
Fridays were the big day in temping. Companies continually failed to call the agency until Friday, even when they knew they’d need someone at least a couple of weeks before, and that was when I’d get the call from the agency. If I went to bed on a Friday without a job for the next week, Monday morning would be last chance saloon when the permies went sick or walked out. No job on Tuesday? No wine on Friday!
Oh, and the technology. When I first started out, everyone had electronic typewriters and some places even still made you use carbon paper. Carbon paper is a massive pain in the arse. You’d insert a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of A4 so there would be a copy of the letter you’d typed. Believe it or not, this still happened in the early nineties. WordPerfect 5.0, Word for Windows 3:1, mail merge, 5.25in floppy disks, 3.5in floppy disks, WYSIWYG, audio-typing from tiny tapes, Tippex. Also: telexes.
The thing with temping was that you had to make yourself as amenable and competent as possible so you’d be asked back or even given a longer term job. Two long-term temp jobs I had came about because I’d gone somewhere for a week or two and made a good impression so they asked me to stay longer. I was actually lucky with both of these because they were astonishingly flexible about the hours I worked and they got me through nearly two years of uni. One of them did make the bizarre stipulation that I wasn’t allowed to arrive at work in my uni clothes and change in the loos like a normal person. This led to me changing in my car by the side of the road and one memorable occasion when a bus load of passengers saw me struggling into my blouse. The same manager also told me he didn’t like my hair, clothes or makeup but presumably failed to find fault with my work. I mean, gosh, it wasn’t like I was a goth or anything.
Why wasn’t I permanent? Well, I wanted to be. I needed to be to pay my rent. I applied for jobs and went for interviews but being a student counted against me and agencies don’t like to lose reliable temps who can do more than one thing at a time without drooling. One day, at one of the long-term jobs (where I’d missed lectures to work and gone in on Saturdays to keep up) every temp but me was called into the boss’s office and offered a full-time role. I went home in tears but actually it ended up being one of the things that eventually got me out of the secretarial rut.
And now I’m permanent. And I don’t have to do mail merges or make tea for anyone else but me.