By Kristina Cooke
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Althea Norwood Roberts gives employers three months to turn her temporary job into a permanent one. Then she looks elsewhere.
That's as long as a company needs to see if she's a good fit, the 35-year old single mother from California believes.
Norwood Roberts, currently temping for an architecture firm, is like millions of other Americans who are wondering if she will get permanent work.
"Temping is kind of like dating. It's a trial-run for the company," she said. "If they can't make up their mind about you after 90 days, it's probably not going to happen, they're stringing you along."
Norwood Roberts, who has a five-year old daughter, wants a job with security, good benefits and a pension. "It is not optional at this point. It is a necessity," she said.
In the past year, about a quarter of all jobs created in the United States were temporary as companies remained cautious about the outlook for the economic recovery.
Over the past three recessions, temps -- who are easier to hire and fire -- have suffered the quickest and most severe cuts to their numbers at the beginning of a downturn, and then led broader employment gains when the economy recovered. For a graphic see http://r.reuters.com/geb97r
The pace of temporary job creation after the most recent recession -- an average of about 25,000 per month -- has been faster than in the past two, potentially a good sign for a labor market struggling with a jobless rate of 9 percent.
In the 17 months after the 2001 recession -- the same period which has lapsed since the one in 2007-09 -- employers added just 1,400 temporary jobs a month and the lag between the pick-up in temp hiring and the economy starting to add full-time jobs was 10 months longer.
But the faster pace of temporary hiring this time around hasn't yet translated into significant full-time job creation.
"It will be a really good sign when we see those temporary jobs turn into permanent jobs," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this month.
Peter Capelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, says the jury is still out on whether the U.S. labor market is undergoing a structural change toward more temp workers or whether companies are just biding their time until demand for their products picks up and they add more long-term employees.
"It's probably a bit of both. Another thing may be that employers are using temp work as a more thorough interview process, so it could be masking permanent hiring," he said.
That is a trend that Randstad, the world's second-biggest staffing firm, is seeing.
Randstad said more of its clients than in prior recoveries are using a "temp to perm" approach to hiring, to try the employee out before committing to taking them on.
NO LOYALTY BOTH WAYS
Some companies are actively shifting to what they say is a more flexible workforce.
In January, Lowe's, the home improvement giant, slashed 1,700 middle-management jobs and said it would add thousands of part-time customer service employees.
One of the middle managers laid off was Dean Lutz, 43, from South Carolina. Lutz says the job market is the worst he has seen in his career, with most available jobs either seasonal or part-time.
"Honestly, jobs available out there aren't very good." he said. Companies "don't want to pay benefits or higher wages."
Lowe's move is "emblematic of an evolution that took place starting in the late 1970s in which employers showed less commitment to their workers," said Gary Burtless, a professor at the Brookings Institution.
But he said there is little evidence to suggest that temporary hiring has become more common in the past couple of years, with temporary workers as a share of overall employment peaking at 2.4 percent at the height of the dotcom bubble.
Despite the faster pick-up, the number of temporary jobs is still down about 15 percent from before the recession.
Tom Bonds, vice president of operations at the Huron Valley Steel Company in Anniston, Alabama, said he expects a shift back to permanent workers once there is more clarity about the economic and regulatory outlook.
"We prefer full-time workers, because they are going to be there ... with temps there is no loyalty both ways," he said.
While temporary workers may be high caliber at times of high unemployment, the cream of the crop may be quickly snapped up once the recovery picks up steam.
Norwood Roberts, the single mother in California, is optimistic. She has had two previous temporary jobs in the past 10 years, both of which turned into permanent positions.
"I have been able to juggle things so far. Some people don't have that luxury," she said. "I am one of the lucky ones."
(additional reporting by Nick Zieminski, Dan Burns and Dhanya Skariachan)