Temporary work can be an excellent stepping stone

With the right approach you can turn a temping job into a full- time career.

For many graduates, finding employment is something of a lucky dip. You go to a career fair or two, send off a few applications and, hey presto, after a round of interviews and a polite acceptance letter, you're in Corporate Land, complete with your own desk, PC and coat-peg.

Not too difficult, you may think. But for others, it doesn't happen and instead, they wind up temping in posts they don't really want. The good news is, however, that taking on freelance and short-term contracts is fast becoming the norm as an excellent stepping stone in itself. After all, it can be a way of building up a repertoire of flexible and varied work. But the question remains: how do you go about finding that kind of work and building yourself a permanent career?

Agencies report that temping has become a popular option for graduates looking to taste different styles of work and environments. But Susan Hamilton, whose recruitment agency places many graduates in office support roles, warns that to make the jump into regular employment, you'll need agility. "Anything to do with the media, for example, and we get a huge response. People will go in at any level, although I think they appreciate now they are not guaranteed a job." Nevertheless, she says, there's a 50-50 chance, particularly for those temps who seek the person to whom they should give their CV.

If you wind up in the department of your dream job in any industry, she says, an enlightened boss is your best hope of advancement. In addition, creating the right impression is crucial. University lecturer Dr Sandi Mann, 30, worked closely with students and graduates for her new book, published by Element in May:Hiding What You Feel, Faking What You Don't. She advises graduates to add acting skills to their portfolio of degree, polished CV and firm handshake. "There are lots of people with the same skills and qualifications. Before, you could go into the work-place with a degree in your pocket and a bit of work experience, and you'd stand out. That's not enough any more, and it's not enough to do your job well. What can really stand out is the impression you create."

She cites, for example, the "halo and horns" effect. If you arrive on time for a meeting, smartly dressed, this fact alone will influence your colleague's reactions to what might be only a mediocre report. Conversely, if you hand over a tatty, dog-eared report, the quality of the work automatically appears shoddy, even if it is brilliantly well-researched. Graduates, she says, often make the mistake of treating employment in the same way as student life - as a game in which nothing is taken too seriously. They may avoid acting also because they fear to appear ingratiating or false. Or they may believe that acting is not an honest way to behave. "But we do it all the time," she argues. "It's about accepting it instead of ignoring it." Be aware, however, that acting the part of the high-flyer can be stressful. "There are various techniques to lessen the stress, like not scheduling your meetings back to back and having opportunities to let your real feelings show, like shooting off an e-mail to your friend in America."

Taking on a positive attitude is essential; act as if you already have the job, even if in you're just there for a week. Dressing well is important, as is socialising. Sandi Mann says: "You have to show you're a team player. Show how well you fit in and get on so people will miss you when you go."

One graduate who adopted this technique was Regina Stock, who joined Bosch Telecom as a temp in 1995, after leaving Exeter University with a degree in French and German. She was placed by a local temp agency in Rickmansworth, although she had set her sights on working in central London. But after spending a week at Bosch in a small department which was about to expand, she found opportunities beginning to open up. "I started just for eight days; they said 'Can you type?' and I said yes, so they gave me some data entry. Then a couple of people overheard me speaking German; then they realised I was a graduate and were fairly keen for me to stay longer-term."

These days, Regina is a sales support account manager in the same firm. But she points out that the jump from temp to a permanent career did not happen automatically. "Obviously, you try to muscle your way in. I was quite pushy. I wanted a proper career." After a year with the company, having being promised a permanent job which failed to materialise, she decided to act. "I had to threaten, really, and it worked." She is now about to increase her experience with a move into the engineering department as a project manager.

Being assertive is as important as being nice and personable. Beware of being taken advantage of, warns Sandi Mann. "You want to be able to say 'no', and ask for things - like a contract."

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