What It Takes to Temp

What It Takes to Temp

If Monster were to put together a test to qualify candidates for temp work, this could be the first question:

What is the most important skill for an administrative assistant?

A. Microsoft Word
B. Excel
C. PowerPoint
D. Communications, multitasking and teamwork skills

The correct answer depends upon the agency and the specific employer's requirements. To put a finer point on what employers are looking for in temporary workers, we turned to recruiters in the temporary staffing industry.

Hard Skills

Proficiency with office software is sometimes king. "The first thing we're looking at is the software skills, primarily Word, Excel and PowerPoint," says Carrie Miller, a Milwaukee branch manager for one staffing firm. "We're looking for basic word-processing knowledge -- cutting, pasting, underlining and mail merge." Admins should be able to set up spreadsheets and use equations with Excel. Additionally, an administrative assistant should be able to take an executive's notes and put together a presentation using PowerPoint.

Some temp agencies take an analytical approach to matching admins with assignments. "We back into candidate selection based on testing," says a vice president of a temporary staffing agency in Detroit. His company investigates the documents an admin will be asked to produce on a job and which software versions the customer has in-house. "Sometimes an employer's requirements are so specific, we send an admin to do on-the-job shadowing."

Even within the realm of hard skills, high-level capabilities are emphasized over basic competency. "For an executive secretary, typing speed is not as important as, for example, the ability to create proposals and presentations," he says. Some agencies don't even test for typing speed these days.

Soft Skills

For those who have invested heavily in software skills, the agency vice president has these jarring words: "The core competencies now are the soft skills. These qualifications are accented by hard skills." Most people can learn the hard skills, but communications-intensive soft skills are hard to teach. "The ability to multitask, to deal with external and internal customers -- those skills are incredibly difficult to find," he says. Good speech articulation and other language skills, polished public-relations abilities and a solid work ethic are also highly sought.

Miller places more emphasis on hard skills. "Our clients are now looking for some of the soft skills and a stable work history showing a commitment to a company for a year or two," she says. Employers also seek good phone etiquette, customer service skills, and the ability to work both independently and as part of a team.

Are employers willing to work with temporary workers who are strong in soft skills but possess only a rudimentary understanding of word processing and spreadsheets? They're not as eager to take on software newbies as they were just a couple of years ago, Miller says.

Before you approach an agency for administrative temp assignments, take some time to hone those hard skills, polish your image and smooth out your communications savvy. These improvements in your qualifications for temporary work will also yield a permanent increase in your marketability as a professional.

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