Talent for sale

May 5, 2009, 10:27 PM UTC

By Mina Kimes, Fortune Reporter

Looking for work?  Max Messmer, CEO of Robert Half International , feels your pain.

Messmer heads a $5 billion-a-year staffing empire that makes most of its money finding temporary jobs for financial services workers — not the easiest task these days. Messmer took the helm in 1986 (far from a temp gig!) when revenues were just $7 million; since then, he’s diversified the company by adding consulting and IT arms. That’s a growth story that has landed Robert Half a spot on Fortune‘s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, where it has consistently topped its industry. But the firm still derives the bulk of its revenues from placing workers.

Robert Half’s net profits, not surprisingly, were down 50% last quarter. And indeed, Messmer is frustrated as he copes with hiring freezes and mass management layoffs at companies like Citigroup and Bank of America . “It’s a knee-jerk reaction.” he says. “We’ve been through some recessions, and we’ve never seen this number of highly qualified people in finance laid off.”

But of course, in every crisis, there’s opportunity. Messmer wants small and mid-sized businesses to recognize that today is an opportune time to upgrade staffs. “In most cases, we’re talking about companies that wouldn’t have been able to attract these people before,” he says.

So Robert Half’s sales force is pitching a new marketing theme to potential clients: Catch these employees while you can. Their sales folks are also using aggressive tactics to get customers in the door. “We tell them, we can line up four people for you to interview on Friday morning at our office,” says Messmer. “When they see the top people, they can’t refuse.”

Getting people jobs these days — it’s a little like being the Godfather.

Long ago, Robert Half helped quash the stigma of white-collar professionals doing temp work. And now, Messmer aims to persuade companies that hiring experienced temps — currently available in droves — is more cost-efficient than overworking your current staff. For example, a financial services client recently added a skilled temp rather than paying several staffers to work overtime. The move boosted morale and saved money.

“If you’re paying employees overtime or asking them to do work that’s wrong for their skill sets, you’re wasting money,” says Messmer. “Upgrading is actually cost effective  — give me 60 seconds, and I can prove it to you.”