The Climb Continues

By Cynthia Poole and Steven P. Berchem, CSP
The 2014 ASA Staffing Industry Economic Analysis

The Climb Continues: Staffing and Recruiting Outpace Economic Growth and Labor Market Improvements

Editor’s note: This analysis, prepared August 2014, provides an overview of the size, scope, and dynamics of the U.S. staffing and recruiting industry. It is intended as a general reference for staffing companies, staffing clients, industry analysts, journalists, and policy makers.

The U.S. economy has been expanding for more than five years, since the end of the Great Recession. But that expansion has been subpar. It took almost the entire five years to recover the jobs lost during the 18 months of the Great Recession. Although the job losses have been finally regained, population growth has produced more new workers than the economy has created new jobs. The unemployment rate has declined to near normal, but labor force participation has declined to the lowest levl in decades. Meanwhile, the staffing and recruiting industry has been growing at a sustained, unprecedented rate—unlike any prior recovery. Why? Is this unique to this particular recovery, because of the Great Recession? Or has a new economic environment emerged that favors the staffing and recruiting industry?

The Slow-Growth Economy

The Great Recession was worse than any since World War II. On average, the 10 recessions from WWII until the Great Recession lasted 10 months. The Great Recession lasted 18.1

Beginning with the first quarter of 2008, real gross domestic product (GDP)—the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S.—declined in five of the subsequent six quarters to mid-2009. At that point, the cumulative damage was a stunning –4.3%, far exceeding the depth of the prior worst recession in the postwar era, which was a 3.6% decline in 1957. Unlike the 2007-09 recession, the 1957 recession lasted less than a year, and the U.S. economy fully recovered from that recession in two quarters.2

So far in the current recovery, July 2009 through June 2014, quarterly GDP has grown at an average annualized rate of 2.2%, well below the 2.7% rate of the 2002-07 expansion3 and the average annual rate of 3.3% from 1929, when the U.S. Department of Commerce began tracking GDP, to 2012.4

GDP growth gained momentum in 2013, despite government spending cuts and higher taxes that clipped off about 1.5 percentage points. A political budget truce lifted much of the uncertainty about federal agency shutdowns and borrowing-limit battles that had weighed heavily on the economy during the prior year.5 After a 1.8% increase in the second quarter, third quarter GDP rose 4.5%, only the second time since 2006 that economic growth exceeded 4%. Fourth quarter GDP grew a relatively robust 3.5%.6

All indications pointed to further acceleration in economic growth in 2014. At the end of 2013, the economy seemed to be facing fewer challenges than at the beginning of the year. Economic forecasts for 2014 were bullish, with most experts believing that the pace of recovery had picked up and the economy would further strengthen in 2014.

But instead of climbing as expected, GDP shrank dramatically in the first quarter of 2014—down 2.1% (see Figure 1).7 The decline was initially blamed on harsh winter weather, but the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis then attributed the fall-off to shrinkage in inventories, exports, state and local government spending, and physical asset investments; increased imports; and smaller increases in personal consumption expenditures than originally estimated.

GDP strongly rebounded in the second quarter of 2014, with BEA initially estimating annualized growth of 4.0%.8 Yet, with the unexpected slowing of the economy in the first quarter of 2014, projections for the full year have been scaled back.

Economists surveyed monthly by the Wall Street Journal recently slashed their 2014 annual GDP estimates. From May 2013 through April 2014, their projections for annual GDP growth for 2014 averaged 2.7% to 2.8%. In May 2014, the average estimate slipped to 2.4%. In June, it slipped further, to 2.2%. In July, surveyed economists slashed their estimate to 1.6%.9

In the August survey, after the release of BEA’s markedly revised estimates, the economists bumped up their annual forecast for 2014 to 2.0%—better, but still weaker than 2013’s paltry growth of 2.2%.10

For 2015, the surveyed economists project GDP growth at 2.9%. That would be the strongest year in a decade.

Labor Market Improvements: A Paradox?

Although news reports have heralded that the labor market finally fully recovered from the Great Recession, labor force participation tells a different story.


“Federal Reserve research concludes that the unemployment rate is probably the best single indicator of current labor-market conditions,” said Fed chairman Janet Yellen. “In addition, it is a good predictor of future labor-market developments.”11

So what does the unemployment rate say?

After averaging 7.0% at the end of 2013, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.1% in June 201412, the lowest in about six years. While the rate ticked up marginally to 6.2% in July13, the increase was due to an influx of supply—with the labor market improving, more people sought work (see Figure 2).

Corresponding with the decline in the unemployment rate, the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits also dropped. In December 2013, the Labor Department reported, the number of applications for unemployment benefits totaled 344,000.14 The weekly number of initial claims eased over the following seven months. It then unexpectedly dropped to 284,000 in mid-July—the lowest level since February 2006—then edged up slightly in August to 289,00015.

Recipients of jobless benefits fell from 2.9 million in December to 2.5 million at the end of July—hovering around the smallest number of recipients since June 2007, just before the Great Recession.16

Unemployment is now approaching what economists call a “natural rate,” which is the level that exists when the economy is in a state of full employment, with little or no inflation. Federal Reserve researchers have computed a “new natural rate” of unemployment at 5.6% to 5.7%17 (see Figure 2).

Fig. 02

Figure 2: The Unemployment Rate Continued to Decline After Peaking in October 2009.

The summer 2014 unemployment rate appears to be within half a point of the new natural rate and seems poised for further declines. Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal in August 2014 expect the unemployment rate to decline to 5.9% by year-end, and drop further in 2015 to 5.5%.18

On the surface, a declining unemployment rate would seem to be good news for jobless workers. But what if the unemployment rate is declining because fewer people want work?

Labor Force Participation

Labor force growth is an important component of overall economic growth.19

The U.S. civilian labor force—defined as the number of people working or looking for work—has experienced significant shifts in size and demographic composition, especially since World War II.20

The proportion of women in the labor force rose after World War II, and peaked in 1999, but has been declining since. Growth of the population slowed in the first decade of the 21st century. And large numbers of Baby Boomers are now retiring and exiting the workforce. These have all contributed to labor force declines.

Fig. 03

Figure 3: Labor Force Participation Has Trended Downward Since April 2000, Hitting a Low Not Seen Since 1978. How Low Will Participation Go?

Just as greater participation by women and an increasing population helped swell the labor market previously, the reversal of these trends may now be factors aiding the dampening of economic expansion and deceleration of GDP growth.21

The labor force participation rate—the share of the working-age population either employed or seeking a job—peaked at 67.3% in April 2000. It dropped to 62.8% in October 2013 and has hovered there since.22 This is not merely the reversal of a long upward trend. The labor force participation rate has not been this low since 1978 (see Figure 3).

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the aging workforce and sluggish economy account for about one percentage point of the drop in the participation rate since 2007. Limited employment opportunities for job seekers in more recent years have caused some people to leave the labor force permanently, accounting for about half a percentage point of the decline in the participation rate.23

Even with an improvement in the unemployment rate, labor force participation is projected to decline further as more Baby Boomers reach the 55-years-and-older age group, more than offsetting economic gains.24 CBO projects that the labor force participation rate will edge down to 62.5% by the end of 2017. 25

What does this mean for the staffing industry?

Staffing and Recruiting: Climbing With Vigor

Historically, staffing employment has been a coincident economic indicator and a leading employment indicator.26 What that means is that staffing employment trends coincide with economic trends (as measured by GDP) and happen in advance of shifts in employment trends.

In other words, as the economy grows, so does staffing employment. And as GDP shrinks, staffing employment falls. Because overall employment trends tend to lag economic trends, and staffing employment coincides with economic trends, changes in staffing employment frequently portend changes in overall employment by three to six months.

Fig. 04

Figure 4: Staffing Employment Peaked in 2007, Coinciding With the Peak of the Last Economic Expansion, Then Troughed in 2009, at the End of the Recession.

In 2006, ASA introduced its Staffing Index, which provides a near real-time gauge of staffing industry employment and overall economic activity. It tracks weekly changes in temporary and contract employment, with results reported nine days after the close of a workweek (see “Methodology of ASA Economic Surveys”).

The index was set at 100 when it was publicly launched on June 12, 2006. The weekly percentage change in employment is applied to the index, allowing observers to easily estimate how much staffing employment has changed over time.  For example, the index troughed at 66 in midsummer 2009, indicating that staffing employment had fallen about 34% from its level in mid-June 2006.  The index peaked at 105 in mid-October 2007, virtually coinciding with the peak of the last economic expansion. The index accurately marked the turning points of the last economic cycle (see Figure 4).

Since the recovery began in July 2009, staffing employment has been growing faster than the economy and than overall employment.

Temporary and Contract Staffing Average Weekly Employment

Figure 5: U.S. Staffing Firm Jobs Climbed From a Low of 2.2 Million in 2009 to 3.0 Million in 2013.

Total Annual Temporary and Contract Staffing Employment

Figure 6: U.S. Staffing Firms Hired a Total of 11.0 Million Temporary and Contract Employees During 2013.

Temporary and Contract Jobs

Staffing companies in the U.S. employed an average of 3.0 million temporary and contract workers per week in 2013, up 4.0% from 2012, according to the quarterly ASA Staffing Employment and Sales Survey (see Figure 5).

Staffing companies in the U.S. employed an average of 3.0 million temporary and contract workers per week in 2013, up 4.0% from 2012.
ASA began estimating temporary and contract employment through a quarterly survey of staffing firms after BLS suspended monthly measurement of jobs in the temporary help services industry in 1990. When BLS resumed measuring temporary help jobs in 2000, ASA maintained its survey. The quarterly ASA employment survey is similar to the BLS monthly jobs survey, and the ASA Staffing Index is similar to the ASA quarterly survey. Typically, data from the three surveys statistically correlate (see “Methodology of ASA Economic Surveys”).

BLS and ASA measure employment during select weeks so that the metrics are comparable across surveys as well as, for BLS, industries. However, because most temporary and contract work assignments are truly temporary and of relatively short duration, weekly employment figures undercount the enormous number of people who work for the staffing industry over the course of a month or even during a year.

To determine annual employment in the staffing industry, ASA collects data on the number of Forms W-2 issued annually to temporary and contract employees by the staffing firms that participate in the association’s quarterly survey. From those data, ASA estimates the number of temporary and contract employees who have worked in the staffing industry during the calendar year.

Over the course of 2013, U.S. staffing firms hired a total of 11.0 million temporary and contract employees, a 4.4% decrease from 11.5 million in 2012 (see Figure 6).27

Staffing and Recruiting Sales Increased 4.6% in 2013 to $122 Billion

Temporary and contract staffing sales totaled $109.2 billion in 2013, according to the quarterly ASA Staffing Employment and Sales Survey. That was an increase of 4.3% over 2012.

Search and placement sales grew 8% in 2013, according to Staffing Industry Analysts. Applying SIA’s yearly growth estimates to the most recent (2007) U.S. Economic Census benchmark shows that search and placement sales totaled $13.2 billion in 2013.

Combining temporary and contract services with search and placement services, U.S. staffing industry sales set a new annual record at $122.4 billion in 2013, 4.6% more than in 2012. Search and placement sales accounted for 10.8% of total staffing and recruiting industry sales in 2013.

SIA forecasts U.S. temporary and contract staffing sales to grow 5% in 2014 and 6% in 2015; search and placement sales are expected to grow 7% and 10% in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Annual Sales Totals for the Staffing and Recruiting industry

Total Staffing and Recruiting Industry Sales—Including Temporary and
Contract, and Search and Placement—Continued a Postrecession Climb,
Increasing 4.6% to $122 Billion in 2013.

Turnover, Tenure, and Conversion

Average weekly staffing employment increased while the annual total decreased in 2013, in part because staffing employee turnover decreased and employment tenure increased. In other words, more people were working in temporary or contract jobs because of increased demand, but they were also working longer (more days)—either because their assignments lasted longer or because they had a string of shorter assignments that together resulted in extended employment.

Turnover is the rate at which incoming employees replace outgoing employees over the course of a year. Overall turnover in the U.S. workforce is 15%, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.28 At nearly 300%, turnover in the staffing industry is perhaps the highest of any industry in the nation. In 2013, staffing employee turnover was 263%, down from 294% in 2012—setting a new record low, which had previously been 277% in 2010.

SHRM and other sources note that turnover in general has been declining as the economy has improved and the workforce has aged. Turnover is often inversely related to job satisfaction, SHRM notes—unhappy employees are more likely to leave their employer. Temporary and contract employees report extraordinarily high satisfaction, with nine out of 10 (92%) giving top marks to their staffing firm.

Turnover Rate vs. Tenure

Figure 7: The Average Staffing Employee Works About Three Months.
In 2013, Staffing Employee Turnover Decreased to 263% and Tenure Increased to 14.3 Weeks.

Tenure—the duration of employment with the staffing firm—is based on turnover. They are inversely related: the longer the tenure, the lower the turnover, and vice versa. Tenure has gradually increased in the two decades over which ASA has been tracking it, generally adding a day or two per year, averaging about 11 weeks (nearly three months). Tenure rose markedly in 2012 to 13.2 weeks, and again in 2013 to 14.3 weeks (see Figure 7).

The recent elevation in staffing employee tenure is consistent with national trends across the entire labor force. A Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data shows that median tenure has increased in all age groups of workers, particularly among workers under 45.29

Another explanation for the recent elevation in tenure is the conversion of employees from temporary or contract assignments to permanent positions with staffing clients. Securing a permanent job is important to most staffing employees; it’s a top priority for half. In a 2014 ASA survey of nearly 12,000 current and former temporary and contract employees, 41% of former staffing employees landed a permanent job.30

However, achieving the objective of landing a permanent job often takes more time than simply filling in a bit of free time with a short temporary or contract assignment to earn some quick cash—thus the increase in tenure of staffing employees.

Staffing clients are increasingly using temporary-to-permanent arrangements as a hiring strategy. “In 2012,” said Chris Martin, senior vice president for enterprise solutions with Randstad U.S., “less than 11% of our openings started as contract-to-hire—in which the company states at the outset that it’s looking for someone to eventually hire permanently. This year [2014], through July, we’re at 19%.”31

“Not only has demand for temporary-to-hire arrangements grown, the evaluation process has expanded” too, Martin said, moving from perhaps six months to a year or more.

Penetration Rate Hits New Record

“Companies are using temporary professionals as part of their staffing mix to a larger extent than ever before,” said Keith Waddell, vice chairman, president, and chief financial officer of Robert Half International.32

Temporary help services accounted for one in 10 job losses during the Great Recession, but have been responsible for more than 16% of net nonfarm employment gains since the recession ended.33,34 Those are outsized effects for an industry that employs only 2% of the nonfarm workforce—in essence, the staffing industry’s penetration rate.

The staffing industry’s penetration rate nearly doubled from 1.02% in July 1991 to its longstanding peak of 2.03% in April 2000 (see Figure 8). The penetration rate dropped to 1.64% in December 2001 at the end of that year’s recession, then climbed to 1.96% in November 2005, near the apex of the prior economic expansion.

During the Great Recession, temporary and contract employment shrank by 30%—nearly a million jobs—and the penetration rate sank to 1.34% in June through August 2009, as the economy began its recovery. In the five years since, staffing employment has continuously climbed, faster than overall nonfarm employment, reaching a new record penetration rate of 2.07% in July 2014.

“It’s a gradually improving economy…That could be very good for us because it means that we help clients navigate in this kind of choppy environment, and our ability to provide workforce solutions and strategic agility becomes extremely or much more important to them.”

—Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup

The new record suggests that a structural shift is taking place. “We’ve long held that temporary penetration rate recovery has been principally secular to this point,” Waddell said. “We’re quite bullish that temporary penetration rates for the entire industry…have the potential to go much higher.”

In other words, the rapid recovery of staffing employment relative to overall nonfarm employment growth indicates that staffing clients are using staffing services differently now than they did before the Great Recession—hence a structural shift. This is not a return to the status quo. It’s more than that.

The economy appears to have plenty of room to grow, offering ample opportunity for the staffing industry to further penetrate the labor market. U.S. industrial capacity remains in surplus; the stock market continues to break records; and the Fed faces minimal inflation pressure, so interest rates are likely to remain near zero well into 2015.

Temporary Help Employment as a Percentage of Total Nonfarm Employment

Figure 8: Since 1990, the Staffing Penetration Rate (the Percentage of the Nonfarm Workforce Employed by Staffing Firms) Has Climbed After Each Recession, Reaching a Record High in 2014.

“We are working through the middle of the economic cycle,” said financial analysts Kevin McVeigh and Jordan Maka from Macquarie Capital Inc. “The severity of the last downturn coupled with demographics—aging Baby Boomers—should drive the penetration rate for temporary and permanent workers (as a percentage of nonfarm payrolls) to new record high levels of 2.2% to 2.4%.”

ManpowerGroup president and chief executive officer Jonas Prising said, “The overall global situation is still in the early innings of the recovery.… We are going to see some opportunities for secular growth. On the perm side, we still have opportunities that come with more cyclical growth.35

“It’s a gradually improving economy,” Prising added. “That could be very good for us because it means that we help clients navigate in this kind of choppy environment, and our ability to provide workforce solutions and strategic agility becomes extremely or much more important to them.”

What’s Ahead?

Many different measures suggest that although the economy is healing from the extreme downturn, conditions—even after five years of recovery—are not back to what used to be considered normal.

Strong growth in staffing employment would normally suggest that strong growth in overall employment would soon follow; instead, overall employment growth has been anemic in this recovery due to the lackluster economic growth. With GDP expanding only 2.2% in 2013, businesses are rightly cautious in hiring.

Instead of hiring permanent employees, businesses are increasingly turning to staffing services to match their workforces with the pace of what little growth they might be experiencing—to keep fully staffed during busy times.

The staffing and recruiting industry grew about two times faster than the economy in 2013. Will the industry grow 5% in 2014, as SIA predicts? Not if GDP grows only 2.0%, as forecast by the economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal in August. But if the economy can sustain the 4% pace of growth witnessed in the second quarter of this year, or even match the revised forecasts of 3% for the third and fourth quarters of 2013, the staffing industry could break even more records before the year ends.

“Looking ahead,” said Fed chairman Janet Yellen, “I expect that economic activity will expand at a somewhat faster pace this year than it did last year, that the unemployment rate will continue to decline gradually, and that inflation will begin to move up toward 2%.”36

Regardless of what happens during the coming months, it’s becoming apparent that the staffing and recruiting industry is charting a new course. After a long history of service to job seekers, businesses, and the economy, the industry has been transformed for today’s slow-growing yet rapidly evolving economy. The role of the industry within the U.S. economy has undergone a structural shift—the staffing and recruiting industry now creates jobs faster than the overall economy.

Cynthia Poole is director of research for the American Staffing Association. Steven P. Berchem, CSP, is chief operating officer for ASA and oversees the association’s research program. Send feedback on this article to s****** Follow ASA on Twitter @StaffingTweets.

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Staffing Success Magazine - 2014 Special Issue

The Climb Continues: Staffing and recruiting outpace economic growth and labor market improvements.
  1. National Bureau of Economic Research, Business Cycle Dating Committee, announcement of June 2009 as the end of the recession that began in December 2007, Sept. 10, 2010.
  2. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “The Recession and Recovery in Perspective,”, Aug. 15, 2013.
  3. U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis news release, “Gross Domestic Product: Second Quarter 2014 (Advance Estimate); Annual Revision: 1999 Through First Quarter 2014,” July 30, 2014.
  4. U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis news release, “Gross Domestic Product: Second Quarter 2013 (Advance Estimate); Comprehensive Revision: 1929 Through First Quarter 2013,” July 31, 2013.
  5. Martin Crutsinger, “U.S. Economy Shrank at 1% in Q1,” Associated Press, May 29, 2014.
  6. Ibid 3.
  7. Ibid 3.
  8. Ibid 3.
  9. Economic Forecasting Survey: July 2014, Wall Street Journal,, July 17, 2014.
  10. Economic Forecasting Survey: August 2014, Wall Street Journal,, Aug. 7, 2014.
  11. Steve Goldstein, “The Janet Yellen Dashboard—How the Fed Chief Views the Jobs Market,” MarketWatch, July 8, 2014.
  12. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings From the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National),” Website Public Data Query, Series ID: CES6056132001, July 3, 2014.
  13. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey,” Website Public Data Query, Series ID: LNS14000000, Aug. 11, 2014.
  14. U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration news release, “Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims,” July 24, 2014.
  15. U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration news release, “Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims,” Aug. 7, 2014.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Murat Tasci and Saeed Zaman, “Unemployment After the Recession: A New Natural Rate?” Cleveland Federal Reserve, Jan. 8, 2012.
  18. Kathleen Madigan, “Economists See Second-Half GDP Growth of 3%,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 7, 2014.
  19. Mitra Toossi, “Labor Force Projections to 2022: The Labor Force Participation Rate Continues to Fall,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Department of Labor, December 2013.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid 19.
  22. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey,” Website Public Data Query, Series ID: LNS11300000, July 27, 2014.
  23. Congressional Budget Office, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” February 2014.
  24. Ibid 19.
  25. Ibid 23.
  26. Steven P. Berchem, “Staffing Jobs as Economic Employment Indicators,” American Staffing Association, June 2009.
  27. American Staffing Association, ASA Quarterly Staffing Employment and Sales Survey, public data available online at; click on Research & Data.
  28. Eliza Jacobs, “Executive Brief: Tracking Trends in Employee Turnover,” Society for Human Resource Management, December 2012.
  29. Josh Zumbrun, “Lower Job Churn Hurts Young Workers,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2014.
  30. Steven P. Berchem, CSP, “The Bridge That Works,” Staffing Success, American Staffing Association, July–August 2014.
  31. Andrew R. McIlvaine, “Trying Before Buying”, July 31, 2014.
  32. Keith Waddell, Robert Half International, investor call after reporting second quarter 2014 financial results, July 22, 2014.
  33. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings From the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National),” Website Public Data Query, Series ID: CES0000000001, Aug. 15, 2014.
  34. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings From the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National),” Website Public Data Query, Series ID: CES6056132001, Aug. 11, 2014.
  35. Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup, investor call after reporting second quarter 2014 financial results, July 21, 2014.
  36. Statement by Janet L. Yellen, chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress, May 7, 2014.