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We are living in a world of great economic uncertainty and volatility unlike anything we’ve experienced in the last 75 years. The COVID-19 pandemic is raising questions for many about how to find job security once again, and I believe the answer lies in embracing temporary and contract work. Let me explain.

At the height of the government-mandated shutdowns, more than 50 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment benefits. With businesses now reopening, the US has recovered about half the jobs it lost earlier in the pandemic. Even so, given an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent as of July, we know that pandemic-related joblessness isn’t going away any time soon. The unpredictable start-and-stop pace of reopenings and closures only exacerbates that fact.

While some sectors are recovering faster than others, industries like travel and hospitality may not get back to pre-COVID employment levels until 2023 or beyond, according to McKinsey & Company. For millions of people across the US, the world of work has changed, likely for the long term. Unless we embrace new employment strategies, the future prospects are bleak for many. Government subsidies and social safety nets will not last forever.

Job Market Disruption

The year of 2020 began with over a million more job openings than the total number of self-identified unemployed workers. The pre-pandemic unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, the lowest in 50 years.

As recruiters, we were struggling to find qualified talent to fill openings. This challenge was shared by both staffing agencies and corporate talent acquisition professionals. Competition for talent was extreme.

However, the labor market has shifted in the blink of an eye from one favoring job seekers to one flush with talent looking for new opportunities to earn a living. Many unemployed job seekers are facing a buyer’s market that is unlike anything they have ever experienced. Competition for jobs is now extreme, and it will not diminish in the foreseeable future.

The pandemic has accelerated the disruption and digitalization of work, and all of us need to focus on strategies to future-proof our careers. For many people, that means considering new roles in new industries and acquiring new skills to stay relevant to employers.

Job (In)Security

Today and in the future, employment security will be defined by and inextricably linked to possessing skills that meet market demands. Those who possess in-demand skills will be the desirable ones, highly sought after for what they can contribute.

Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning are the coins of the new realm. And despite seeming like an oxymoron, temporary and contract work provides the best job security for many today and, very likely, tomorrow.

One very vivid lesson of the past two recessions is that career security is no longer tied to landing a job in the “right” company. Hundreds of thousands of people recently experienced that reality firsthand while working at blue chip companies like Boeing, Microsoft, American Airlines, GE, IBM, AT&T, and many others.

Millennials, Gen. Z-ers, and Gen. X-ers are designing and navigating career lattices that look very different from those of the past. The days of establishing a career path while in one’s early twenties and working for a single industry sector, let alone the same company, are gone forever (for the most part). But this is not necessarily a bad scenario — it is a new way of looking at our work trajectories.

Working on a temporary or contract basis through a staffing agency offers a new and better form of job security by removing a person’s reliance on a single employer. With their multi-client relationships, staffing companies can keep talent continually engaged and employed by deploying them where needs exist and matching skills with new opportunities on the rise if others experience a down cycle — just like what many people are experiencing today due to the pandemic.

Staffing agencies are talent agents, championing their candidates’ skills and attributes (including soft skills) and presenting them in the best light to prospective employers. They are also their employees’ coaches, offering resume and cover letter reviews and interview prep. Staffing companies also provide candidates with opportunities for training, upskilling, and reskilling to grow their knowledge bases to take advantage of new job opportunities. This training is offered at no cost and is a great investment in employees’ professional futures. The training is geared to the most in-demand skill sets of the agencies’ clients to help ensure businesses have streams of qualified talent to fill job openings.

One other extremely important service that staffing agencies offer — particularly in the time of COVID-19 — is skills assessments. Some jobs have disappeared, at least for the short term due to the pandemic, and others are being dramatically disrupted and transformed by technology. But many of the skills required for those “extinct” roles are transferable to others, including the myriad of new jobs created by the pandemic: contact tracers, temperature screeners, COVID-19 testers, social-distancing monitors, and beyond. Staffing agencies help job seekers and their clients connect the dots between these new jobs and the existing qualifications/skills of candidates.

So — why is this important to you?

Powerful Partnership

For talent acquisition executives and HR professionals, partnering with a staffing agency provides labor market reach, breadth, and talent maximization expertise in a scalable and cost-efficient manner.

COVID-19 is causing a tremendous, long-term labor disruption for both the private and public sectors and across industries. Although the current recession, caused by a public health crisis, is unlike any other, there is one constant. Just like previous economic downturns, the staffing industry has played and will continue to play a critical role in identifying and training talent, and then linking employers with that qualified talent. Staffing agencies are an asset to organizations’ internal talent acquisition teams.

In the earliest stages of the pandemic, staffing companies helped employers rapidly recruit, hire, and deploy hundreds of thousands of temporary and contract workers in support of the delivery of essential services (e.g., retail, supply chain, healthcare) to the nation’s consumers.

Today, as businesses begin to reopen and reimagine operations in our next new normal, staffing agencies continue to help by providing clients with a quick-to-deploy, flexible workforce solution to meet their evolving talent needs.

Talent acquisition executives will find a larger pool of people more interested in and open to temporary and contract work than ever before as people increasingly recognize that this type of arrangement offers as much or more job security than the hope of long-term employment with a single organization once provided. Having a staffing agency as a partner to help source, upskill, reskill, and train new talent will be a critically important strategy for organizations to utilize in their efforts to future-proof their workforces in an increasingly volatile, competitive, and disruptive world.

Richard Wahlquist is president and chief executive officer for the American Staffing Association.

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