CHICAGO (Reuters) - Growing numbers of older Americans who have struggled to find work in the wake of the Great Recession are doing something they once considered unthinkable: They are taking temporary jobs.
And this is one of the best job moves they can make, according to Kerry Hannon, author of the new book "AARP Great Jobs for Everyone 50+" (Wiley).
"But I call it independent contracting, not temping," Hannon says. "It sounds more professional."
While the 5.9 percent unemployment rate for people over age 55 is considerably lower than the 8.1 percent national average, those out of work have a hard time finding full-time jobs, mostly because they are more expensive to hire.
Unemployed people over 55 were jobless an average of 52.7 weeks in August, compared with just 36.1 weeks for younger workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Temporary work is providing a solution. Just in the past year, the independent workforce has grown to 16.9 million from 16 million, according to research by MBO Partners. Forty percent of those contractors are 50 and older, and 10 percent are over 65, the Herndon, Virginia-based temporary employment company found.
Hannon's research suggests that much of the new independent workforce is college-educated, with at least 10 years of professional experience; the MBO study found that average contractor income among people aged 50 to 64 was $77,000.
Employers are getting more interested in contract workers, and only partly because of a reluctance to make full-time commitments. A survey earlier this year by the Society for Human Resources and AARP showed more than seven in 10 U.S. employers were concerned about the loss of talented older workers and that 30 percent were hiring retirees as consultants or for part-time jobs.
"The recession has really forced everyone to think differently about the workplace and workforce issues," says Whitney Forstner, principal of Momentum Resources.
The Richmond, Virginia-based company, which specializes in placing experienced workers in temporary positions, has found the flexibility of contract work has attracted many people, including those with young children or aging parents, or retirees.
People most in demand right now, she says, include those whose positions were among the first to go when the economy crashed, such as those in recruiting, human resources and marketing.
If your professional network is strong, you may be able to find independent gigs on your own, but Hannon also recommends checking out the growing number of temporary agencies, such as Momentum Resources or Experis. Some even specialize in specific professions, such as Special Counsel in San Francisco, which works with attorneys.
Independent work has become much easier and less expensive due to the Internet and low-cost office technology that permits contractors to work from home. The MBO study found that most of these employees can set themselves up with an initial investment of $5,000 or less.
Health insurance has been a major obstacle for older workers going it alone - but that will change in 2014.
Starting then, insurers will not be able to turn away applicants because of pre-existing conditions, and individuals will be able to shop for private healthcare policies through competitive online exchanges. That will remove a major impediment for older people who want to work on their own but have not turned 65, the age they can enroll in the U.S. government's Medicare program.
Then there is the challenge of making a success of contract work - whether in terms of converting to a full-time position, negotiating for a repeat client, or even nabbing a referral to another employer down the road. The good news is that many qualities of a good employee also make for a good contractor, including:
* Being a pro. "One big reason the employer has decided to hire you is because they want someone who experienced, and can step in and ramp up quickly without a lot of hand-holding and training," Hannon says. "Act the part."
* Playing nicely with others. Make an effort to fit in smoothly and quickly with other employees. "You're probably being hired to help with a last-minute project, or one with a tight deadline, so it's an all-hands on deck situation," she says.
* Practicing the three C's: calm, cool, and collected. You could be stepping into a fairly anxious and tense atmosphere, so an upbeat, can-do attitude will be noted.
* Doing the time and more. "A solid work ethic makes you stand out," Hannon says. "There's no harm in being the first one in and last one out. If possible, offer to do more than requested - provided you can really deliver the goods."
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s)
Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Lisa Von Ahn