When Alexander & Alexander Inc., the Baltimore-area insurance broker, decided a few years ago to change its mainframe system from Honeywell equipment to IBM, company executives knew it would take about eight months and a lot of extra man-hours to pull off the conversion.
But instead of hiring more employees to handle the one-time conversion process, the company hired part-time "worker bees" from a local computer consulting firm to implement the conversion.
"Rather than tie up our staff, we went out and got the people who could take on the new work while we continued to provide the same level of service to our customers," said Harold Oswald, vice president of systems development at Alexander & Alexander.
From simple data entry skills to high-tech experience in the area of artificial intelligence, chances are that a company in need of long- or short-term temporary computer help can find quick relief through firms in the Baltimore area.
The field of temporary computer placement and consulting has become a competitive one, with national and international computer consulting firms vying for lucrative temporary contracts with Fortune 500 companies while smaller firms look to fill niches in the small-business sector.
In those cases where a company needs temporary help with a basic computer task such as updating a client data base, it is probably better off contacting a general job placement office than a temporary computer service firm.
But for more intricate and time-consuming computer work, from project management to integrated manufacturing technology, a temporary computer consulting firm can offer a company the specific expertise it needs to get a project off the ground or even see it through to the end.
"Our normal placements usually last at least six months," said Mary Lee Busick, communications manager at Comp-u-Staff, the only national temporary computer service firm that is headquartered in Baltimore.
"A six-week placement is consider a short assignment to us," she said.
At CAP Gemini America, an international computer consulting firm with a 90-employee branch in the World Trade Center, some temporary assignments last as long as three years. But branch manager Brian Sullivan points out that one of the obvious attractions in working for a temporary firm like CGA is that "nothing is a career move."
"At many companies, full-time employees who do their job well find it hard to move up in-house because the company depends on their ability to do their job each day," Mr. Sullivan said. "In our business, you have to be interested in a number of things, flexible enough to move around and, of course, capable to handle the work."
Companies that use computer consultants for temporary computer relief say these services can provide instant expertise in handling a problem while also preventing the need for hiring another employee to solve short-term problems.
"But corporations have to be mindful that they, and not the consultants, keep control of the project and that whatever this project is, it can be supported once the temporary consultants leave," said Jacqueline Douglas, the development center manager at PHH FleetAmerica, a corporate fleet leasing firm in Hunt Valley.
Companies also have to be careful about "knowledge transfer" projects, where information vital to a firm is accessible to temporary computer employees, said Mr. Oswald of Alexander & Alexander.
Comp-u-Staff doesn't normally provide client companies with "off-the-wall" computer expertise, Ms. Busick said; rather, the firm provides competent adjunct staff members, who need little on-site training and can handle a variety of tasks involving hardware and software.
Nevertheless, some temporary computer companies do provide assistance in creating and developing computer programs. But in many cases, temporary computer consultants are brought on board when a company lands a big contract or faces a deadline and needs a few extra hands on deck to handle the increased workload.
Some people who work for temporary computer service firms stay registered with several at one time. A month before their stint with one firm is to end, they contact the various firms they are registered with to let them know they will be available in a few weeks.
"The principle for us in these situations is 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket,' " said Tammy Wilson, the Greenbelt branch manager for Microtemps Systems and Programming, a national temporary computer placement firm. "If I don't place them at the end of one project, somebody else will. In a year, we will maintain a regular placement of about 100 people."
Other large national firms keep their consultants employed full time, and also have on staff full-time recruiters and sales representatives who create the supply and demand that keeps the company in business.