THROWBACK THURSDAY: A Brief History of Staffing Agencies

Imagine it’s World War II, and while men and women are overseas fighting, there are companies attempting to fill those positions left behind. You might be a factory owner, or run a banking office and suddenly you’re running your company at less than half of your normal capacity. Where in the world will you get these positions filled in a timely manner so your business doesn’t fail? Enter some of the most comprehensive and recognizable staffing agencies.

Some will argue that the history of staffing goes back further than the 1940s. There are in fact at least three known privately owned staffing companies from the 1890s in the history books. However, most placed domestic help and didn’t operate on a large (cross industry) scale until the immediate need was brought home to roost in the 1940s.

As men and women in record numbers went to war, there was an extreme lack of talent available to fulfill positions on the home front. The Midwest was the first to readily address business needs by recruiting local housewives to form a new part-time workforce for the U.S. Once the war was over, these businesses continued by placing our now displaced soldiers in new positions. And so the cycle of finding and developing man power for multiple industries was formed into a profitable market.

As one of the first well-known staffing agencies, Kelly Services Inc. was established in 1946 in Detroit, Michigan as Russell Kelly Office Service. Eventually renamed Kelly Girl Services and then Kelly Services, the company boasted smiling women in its advertisements who were available primarily for clerical work in a variety of industries. Kelly saw a boom in temporary assignments as business owners realized they could have a qualified individual ready to fill their clerical needs at a moment’s notice. The company now operates globally, and today provides more than just clerical work and now services industries such as automotive, technology, law, education, science and many others.

1948 brought a white glove  approach to the staffing scene. Able to skirt the existing union laws of the time by claiming temp work as women’s work,  Wisconsin-based Manpower Inc., along with Kelly and other newly formed staffing companies, filled a market need without ruffling too many feathers on the opposition. Installing an iconic image of a woman working outside the home in clerical fields was an enormous success. By the 1960s companies were spending as much as $1 million in advertising and earning between $12 million and $24 million annually. That’s roughly $190 million today.