Kelly Girls

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Kelly Girls

Since the 1960s Kelly Girls has been synonymous with female temporary office workers. Originally a groundbreaking temporary employment service, the name has expanded to a generic, describing all temporary workers, including those who are neither female nor employees of Kelly Services. Kelly Girls describes not only a company and a type of work, but a cultural and economic phenomenon, the shift from the permanent career employee to the flexible "temp." Even Forbes Magazine headlined its July 16, 1986, article about the practice of hiring nuclear scientists and technicians on a temporary basis, "Sophisticated Kelly Girls."

In 1946, William Russell Kelly opened Russell Kelly Office Services in Detroit to provide inventory, calculating, typing, and copying services to local businesses. When his clients began to ask if Kelly's employees could come to their places of business to work, Kelly was happy to oblige. He began to offer workers who could fill in when needed in a variety of situations due to employee illness or vacations, busy seasons, or special projects. His hiring base was largely female, many of them housewives and students.

Kelly had tapped into a genuine employer need, and his business grew. In 1954, he opened his second office in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1956 Russell Kelly Office Services was changed to Kelly Girls, and by 1964 there were 169 offices in 44 states. The Kelly Girl became the perfect pre-feminist icon of the working woman—brisk, efficient, and unthreatening. After all, she was not a woman but a girl, and only temporary, just filling in.

In 1966, Kelly Girls became Kelly Services, and the company continued to expand the field of temporary employment. Living up to its motto "Tested, Bonded, Insured and Guaranteed," Kelly created specialized computer software for training workers with amazing rapidity to use a wide variety of word processing equipment. With many awards for business achievement and sales of over three billion dollars in 1996, Kelly Services is one of the leaders in the industry, along with employment giant Manpower, Inc., the Olsten Group, and newcomers like MacTemps.

The profit-driven economy of the 1990s dramatically increased the role of the temp worker. When Kelly Girls first began, there were three classifications of workers: clerk, typist, and secretary. By the 1990s Kelly Services had over 120 classifications. Besides the "pink collar" jobs, such as secretary and teacher, and the industrial jobs, temps are hired in management, technical, professional, and even executive positions.

While temporary work is touted as advantageous to a diverse group of workers because of flexibility and variety, in fact the majority of temp workers are minority young women who are hired for clerical or industrial jobs. While some are attracted to the flexible hours and training, almost two thirds would prefer permanent employment if it were available to them.

Corporations are drawn to the use of temps for a variety of reasons. It is a simple way to replace permanent workers who are off the job temporarily or to add extra hands during peak production periods. Sometimes a worker's skills, like computer programming or consulting, are only needed on a short-term basis. By going through a temp agency, an employer can avoid the interviewing and hiring process, and, often, also avoid paying benefits. Some employers, capitalizing on this advantage, have created a new category of worker, the "permatemp," hired on as a temporary worker, but kept on the job for months or even years without the benefits afforded to permanent employees.

In response to this, some employee advocates are attempting to organize temporary workers to fight against violations of their rights. One such group in Greenville, South Carolina, the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, has been working since 1984 to force employers to comply with state and federal employment laws.

The nebulous status of the temporary worker is chillingly dramatized in Jill and Karen Sprecher's 1998 movie Clockwatchers, about four female temp workers. Within a claustrophobic office atmosphere, the temporary workers are portrayed as invisible and powerless. The bosses do not even bother to learn their names or distinguish their faces, and their small acts of rebellion are mostly futile.

Temporary employment has undeniable advantages for both the employee, who may be able to learn a wide variety of skills on an individualized schedule, and the employer, who can inexpensively fill in employees as needed. It can be problematic, however, working in an atmosphere where neither employee nor employer feels responsibility toward the other. The Kelly Girl, trim and brisk in her suit and carrying her steno pad may be out of date, but she initiated the era of the temporary worker. It remains to be seen whether the temporary worker will become the disposable worker.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Cohany, Sharon R. "Workers in Alternative Employment Arrangements." Monthly Labor Review. Vol. 119, No. 10, October, 1996, 31.

Henson, Kevin D. Just a Temp: Expectations and Experiences of Women Clerical Temporary Workers. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996.

"Kelly Services." April 1999.

Larson, Jan. "Temps Are Here to Stay." American Demographics. Vol. 18, No. 2, 26.