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April 21, 2014 at 8:23 AM

Patching together a do-it-yourself career

By Adriene Hill /  New York Times News Service

Contract worker Heather Burdette performs on stilts during a convention party in Las Vegas in March. (Isaac Brekken / The New York Times)

Contract worker Heather Burdette performs on stilts during a convention party in Las Vegas in March. (Isaac Brekken / The New York Times)

The photos spread out on a coffee table tell the story of a career.

In one, a woman wears a fairy costume and rides a flying horse. In another, the woman lounges on a desert rock at sunrise, in a gold bikini draped with red silk. In a third, she wears an Uncle Sam outfit and poses on 3-foot stilts.
These are photos of Heather Burdette, a Las Vegas entertainer, at work.

Not on the table are audition reels from Burdette’s other career, one in which corporations pay her $500–$1,000 a day to present their products, including tires and cybersecurity products, at trade shows. It is work for which she wears business attire instead of hot pants. These jobs are lucrative but infrequent.

The overlapping careers have this in common: The work is temporary, one freelance job after another.

Burdette is among the millions of Americans who piece together a living. Freelancers, the self-employed, temporaries — all know the current job will end and they need to keep looking for the next one. Increasingly, even many people with full-time jobs feel insecurity about their work.

Burdette knows the trajectory of insecurity. She has worked in Las Vegas as an entertainer since 1996, sometimes in jobs that quickly disappeared.

Right now, she is busy. A freelancer since 2008, she works with 30 agents. Some help her book at conventions. Others set her up with entertainment jobs. In addition to her presenting, this year she has worked as an astrologer and stilt-walker, and she helped dress fashion models at a mall.

She is fortunate to live in a city with huge entertainment and convention industries that rely on temporary workers. “It’s the land of opportunity,” she says.

But as Burdette gets older, she has no choice but to consider new ways to earn a paycheck. In both of her careers, looks matter. At 43, she knows she cannot do these jobs indefinitely.

How many people have temporary work is hard to say. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 14 million people were self-employed last month, including freelancers like Burdette.

The temp economy
There has been no official count of insecure workers in years. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 30 percent of the workforce was “contingent,” including those with temporary and part-time jobs.
The number of people paid by temp agencies like Manpower has grown 46 percent since 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. “The staffing industry has added more jobs than any other sector since the end of the recession,” says Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo and the author of “The Temp Economy.”

There are contingent office workers and factory workers. There are contingent computer programmers and corporate executives.

“We know that temps are everywhere,” Hatton says.

Starting with the recession, employers have slashed costs, and a major way to do that has been to lower labor costs. Temporary workers often are paid less than regular employees. Under the Affordable Care Act, companies can avoid health insurance costs by hiring part-time workers (who may qualify for subsidized insurance).

“What we call contingent workers is really hard to define, because to some extent we’re all contingent now,” says Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.”

“Work has become much more insecure, much more precarious,” he says. “So everybody is a temporary in one sense, because their levels of job security have really decreased in recent years.”

Harder to plan

The trick with insecure work, for the worker, is that the next paycheck is unpredictable. For low-income factory temps, being chosen for work can mean the difference between making rent or not making rent, eating well or not eating well. For freelancers like Burdette, the lack of security can make it hard to buy a house or plan for the future.

What if a job comes up? What if it doesn’t?

Burdette wants to find a new set of gigs in which people are not looking at her quite as closely. She has explored voice-over work, recording audiobooks. She has considered doing more with her astrology experience.

She would consider a full-time job, but as a last choice. She said her parents spent years planning and worrying and stressed about the future.

“It didn’t get them any more secure than me,” she says. “I’m actually more secure right now, because I understand that the bottom can fall out at any time.”

One of her old business cards said, “Whaddya need?” Her current card says, “singularly multitalented.”

Under the new health law, which includes a mandate to buy insurance or face a penalty, Burdette has coverage for the first time in years.

“It does provide people with a cushion,” Kalleberg says, “so that they can search, so that they can look for opportunities.”

Now, Burdette has to figure out what those opportunities will be.

Reinvention is a word heard a lot in today’s labor market. Jobs keep changing. People have to change to keep up, especially people without employers that provide training.

But many temporary and self-employed workers do not have the money or time to reinvent themselves and their skills. Even if they do, it is not clear which jobs will be available.

“The path ahead is not going to be laid out for you,” Kalleberg says.

The advice to reinvent is “easy to say, sitting in a job that has a fairly clear career path like I do,” he says. “But it’s a difficult situation and it’s stressful.”

Figuring out what is next may be a little easier for Burdette. She has been doing just that for years. “I don’t know what it’s like not to reinvent,” she says, “I’m just used to that.”

More in Resumes & Job Hunt | Topics: contract work, freelance, temping

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