'Perma-temps' the new reality for many in a changed Europe

From left: Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.
(Above) Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
From left: Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.
Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; (above) Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
From left: Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.
Mr Sam Mee, who finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts; Mr Charles Terraz, a recruiter at a French firm on a six-month contract; and (above) Dr Alessandra Sisco, who is trapped in a web of short-term contracts.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

More than half of new jobs created in EU since 2010 have been through temporary contracts

LONDON • After graduating with degrees in accounting and finance from a university in Finland, Mr Ville Markus Kieloniemi thought he would find at least an entry-level job in his field.

He studied potential employers, tailoring his applications accordingly. He wound up churning through eight temporary jobs over the next three years. He worked as a hotel receptionist and as a salesman in men's clothing stores, peddling tailored suits and sportswear.

"It's hard to manage your finances or even get housing, let alone start a career," said Mr Kieloniemi, 23, who added depth to his resume by accepting unpaid office jobs and internships in New York and Spain, mostly at his own expense.

"You feel pressure all the time."

Meet the new generation of "perma-temps" in Europe.

While the region's economy is finally recovering, more than half of all the new jobs created in the European Union since 2010 have been through temporary contracts. This is the legacy of a painful financial crisis that has left employers wary of hiring permanent workers in a tenuous economy where growth is still weak.

NO CAREER PROGRESS

I'd fix up my resume all the time, and that's your life. I was constantly looking for something else. I was held back. There was no professional growth, and the earnings were low.

DR ALESSANDRO SISCO, 35, on being stuck in a loop trying to divine whether her jobs might be extended, and struggling to land another position.

Under European labour laws, permanent workers are usually more difficult to lay off and require more costly benefit packages, making temporary contracts appealing to all manner of industries, from low-wage warehouse workers to professional white-collar jobs.

For those stuck in this employment netherworld, life is a cycle of constant job searches. Confidence can give way to doubt as career prospects seem to fade. Young people talk of delaying marriage and families indefinitely. And though many are grateful for any workplace experience, they are also cynical about companies that treat them like disposable labour.

FEELING STUCK

I want a career more than anything, but I feel like I'm in a position where a 25-year-old would be. I was forced to put off life's big decisions. You feel stuck. You're young, you have a lot to offer, but no one will give you a chance.

MR SAM MEE, 36, who has hired a job coach and set up his own website to improve his prospects.

What follows is a selection of experiences from this growing group of perma-temps.

CHASING WORK

Dr Alessandra Sisco, a doctor who specialises in treating cancer patients, never dreamed she would have to leave her home in Italy to find steady work. But in a stagnant economy, she was trapped in a web of short-term contracts.

Since finishing her five-year oncology residency in 2012, she has only been able to get three- to five-month temporary contracts that Italy's public and private hospitals largely rely on to manage staffing. The full-time jobs often went to people from well-connected families, or those with ties to senior hospital officials.

BURNED OUT

You have to keep a smile and be mentally strong. In private, though, you feel excluded from society. Three years ago, I had dreams, ambitions for a great career... But right now I have nothing. It's hard not to feel a sense of burnout or depression sometimes.

MR CHARLES TERRAZ, 29, on the stress over money and finding the next job.

The 35-year-old became stuck in a loop, trying to divine whether her jobs might be extended, and struggling to land another position since they usually were not.

"I'd fix up my resume all the time, and that's your life," Dr Sisco said. "I was constantly looking for something else," she added. "I was held back. There was no professional growth, and the earnings were low."

Temporary employees are paid an average of 19 per cent less than their permanent counterparts, according to Eurofound, the research arm of the European Union. Last November, she interviewed for hospital internships in New York. ''At least there would be hope for the future," she said.

Temporary work has become widespread in the United States too, where the explosion of the so-called gig economy has made job hopping the new norm for a growing pool of young workers. But the situation is verging on the extreme in Europe, giving the perniciousness of the problem the potential to play on an entire generation. Millions of people across Europe are searching for work amid jobless rates that are still nearly twice as high as in the United States.

PUTTING LIFE ON PAUSE

At 36, Mr Sam Mee thought his life would have been settled by now. A career in research and social policy. A family. A home. At the very least, a cellphone. But even the basics can be unachievable, as Mr Mee finds himself on a treadmill of temporary contracts. "I had this idea that I would study hard, work hard, get the job I studied for, then ask my girlfriend to marry me," he said.

A British national, Mr Mee thought his master's degree in social analysis would make him attractive to companies and non-governmental organisations that research behaviours and trends. "I'd buy a house and have kids," he said. "That was the dream."

He moved to Amsterdam before the financial crisis to be with his girlfriend and to start his career. Yet in a country where more than 20 per cent of job contracts are temporary, he was never able to find permanent work in his area of expertise. He now has a temporary contract with a firm that does business-to-business collections, and his work includes calling airlines to settle outstanding invoices.

The temporary work trend is accelerating in Europe, as employers seek more flexibility to fire and hire workers, and shun permanent contracts with expensive costs and labour protections. In Spain alone, the government reported that 18 million temporary contracts were handed out last year, compared with 1.7 million long-term jobs.

Temporary contracts blocked more than just Mr Mee's career. Real estate agents were reluctant to deal with him, and it was impossible to get a mortgage at the bank. He also could not obtain a credit card as he lacked steady income. Even cellphone companies would not give him a contract; he had to get one through his girlfriend, who has a full-time job as a midwife. Mr Mee put his personal life on pause.

"I want a career more than anything, but I feel like I'm in a position where a 25-year-old would be," he said. He has hired a job coach and set up his own website to improve his prospects. "I was forced to put off life's big decisions."

"You feel stuck," Mr Mee added. "You're young, you have a lot to offer, but no one will give you a chance."

LIVING WITH ANXIETY

Mr Charles Terraz never used to live with chronic stress, health scares or recurring anxiety. But these days, they have become close companions as he bounces through a series of temporary contracts as a recruiter at industrial and pharmaceutical companies, each of which leaves him a little more drained and racked by uncertainty about his career.

Armed with a master's degree in human resources and economics and business degrees, Mr Terraz, a native of Lyon, France, was confident of finding work at a large company. Yet in the country's struggling economy, where more than 80 per cent of all new hires are temporary, that proved virtually impossible.

"There's a lot of stress about the future and money," said Mr Terraz, who is 29. "The fear of becoming unemployed weighs on you."

That precariousness fuelled sleepless nights and nagging self-doubts. He sustained severe stress and recurring migraines, spending two weeks recovering in hospital.

"It was a horrible experience," he said.

Perhaps no group has felt the sting of the economic fallout more sharply than millennials. More than 40 per cent of Europe's young people are now stuck in a revolving door of low-paid, temporary work.

Today, Mr Terraz is a recruiter at a French pharmaceutical company, but only for six months. The stress over money and finding the next job remains. "You have to keep a smile and be mentally strong," he said. In private, though, "you feel excluded from society". "Three years ago, I had dreams, ambitions for a great career," he added. "But right now I have nothing. It's hard not to feel a sense of burnout or depression sometimes. If I was the only one this was happening to, okay, but most of my friends are in the same position."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2017, with the headline ''Perma-temps' the new reality for many in a changed Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe