The Rise of the ‘Garbage Jobs’

New figures show that the rate of temp jobs in Europe is three times that of the US. How the rise of temp work threatens worker engagement.

Across Europe, it has become a major hiring trend. Critics say it may also become a blight for workers and crimp on corporate growth. 

Temporary jobs, once a much smaller portion of the continent’s labor pool, has grown into a significant facet of the job market. At last count, one in seven (14.2%) of all jobs in Europe are temporary positions, which is more than three times the 4% temp rate in the United States. And while the work is giving companies much-needed flexibility, it’s creating a class of what critics are calling “garbage jobs,” with poor pay and scant benefits, that are causing worker unrest and a different set of challenges for corporate leadership. 

Part of the problem has been Europe’s relatively weak recovery since the financial crisis. While the bloc’s unemployment rate has dropped, the economy in general has limped along as nervous executives have hesitated to invest in new factories or technology. “Many companies aren’t sure whether the economic wintertime is over or whether there’s worse to come,” says Werner Penk, president of technology at Korn Ferry. Put another way, the murky outlook is making executives cautious to a fault, and they don’t want to take on permanent employees. Instead, companies are relying heavily on temp workers for seasonal roles such as retail shop assistants or staff in holiday resorts.

Experts say the reluctance to hire full-time workers is made worse by Europe’s strict employment laws, which make it costly to fire permanent employees. And that, in turn, is also making it harder for younger workers to get much-needed experience, says Sonamara Jeffreys, Korn Ferry’s co-president of EMEA. “In the US, you can get fired on the fly, but you have more opportunity than in Europe,” she says.

Lack of opportunity and lack of prospects for career progression can make some temp jobs too unattractive for workers to take. To fill those jobs, Madeline Dessing, Korn Ferry’s managing director for the Netherlands, says it’s important for leadership to understand the needs of local workers. Often, she says, that comes down to offering career development opportunities, and Europe’s patchwork quilt of countries can become an advantage when attempting to understand the needs of potential workers. 

“It really helps you to make a personal connection and focus on the right kind of development,” Dessing says. In other words, if you need workers in Bilbao, you should get to know what motivates the people in that city. That can include making benefits packages different in different places. “You can make the value proposition flexible right down to the local level,” she says.

For all its downsides, temporary positions do offer the freedom of switching from project to project, which, of course, some people want. For such workers, who are often highly skilled, it makes sense for managers to keep in regular contact. “You have a conversation from time to time to see how people are doing,” says Eric Wenzel, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. He adds that savvier temp workers will also want to keep in contact with you. “It’s a two-way street,” he says.