A number of initiatives have been launched to address the challenges posed by the new American workplace. Some are the work of long-established organizations, while in other cases, new organizations have been started to fill this role. These experiments are noteworthy because they sketch out the contours of solutions that could become more broadly applicable in the future. A look at a few is illustrative.
In 2001, the New York-based non-profit Working Today began offering a medical plan priced at a 30 to 50 percent discount against competing offerings to members of a consortium of professional groups, including the World Wide Web Artists Consortium, Webgrrls, the Graphic Artists Guild, and the Newspaper Guild. The effort primarily targets high-tech workers in Manhattan's Silicon Alley. This offering is the first step in a larger effort to build a delivery system that can provide services to the newly mobile workforce. Once the health plan is up and running, Working Today hopes to extend the model to different cities and among other groups, including lesser-skilled, lower-wage workers. After its delivery network is solidly in place, Working Today also hopes to introduce other services, such as training and career assistance.
"Personnel supply services"—the term used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for temporary staffing agencies—had the fastest employment growth of any industry sector from 1988 to 1998. The number of positions filled by staffing companies expanded from 1.35 million to 3.23 million over that period (BLS 2000b). The range of jobs filled expanded along with the volume. Companies can now hire temporary executives, finance experts, and Web developers, in addition to the secretaries, technicians, and assembly-line workers that were long the industry's mainstay.
As more people have begun to work as temps, staffing companies increasingly offer health insurance, pensions, vacation and sick pay, and, in some cases, even stock options—the kind of benefits regular employees received under the traditional employment contract. With the spread of technology in the workplace, staffing firms have stepped up their training activities, with efforts including courses in computer-aided design for automotive engineers, Java workshops for mainframe programmers, and self-directed offerings that allow clerical staff to hone their PC skills.
Aquent Associates, a Boston-based staffing company, provides not only health, pension, and vacation benefits, but also extensive career assistance. Aquent calls this last service having "your own personal Jerry Maguire", an allusion to the Hollywood movie about an agent who represents professional athletes. A number of Web firms, such as elance.com, guru.com, and freeagent.com, offer not only project-matching but also career, health and pension plans, invoicing, and low-cost office supplies.
Jobs for Youth is a Boston-based organization that runs a 15-week program for workers trapped in low-wage, dead-end jobs. It provides training in computer skills and financial service industry back-office operations. Run in partnership with Boston-area employers like Mellon Bank, US Trust, and Brown Brothers Harriman, the Jobs for Youth program places trainees in jobs in sponsor firms. After they start working, graduates of the program can continue their education with classes at Suffolk University. The participating employers are pleased, reporting strong performance by trainees and attrition rates that are half the industry norm.