Staffing Stocks Have Defied Jobs Numbers...What's Next?

Adem is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Since 2009 staffing and employment service stocks have been on a surprising march upward, as nearly every company has performed amazingly. With high unemployment, this performance has surprised some; but as I've written previously, temporary staffing can actually do better during periods of high unemployment.

Up until this point, racking up winners in staffing has been like shooting fish in a barrel. So how can one pick winners from losers in staffing?

Getting picky

When you look at staffing right now, every company is winning so you have to evaluate "good" and "bad" based on future risks and quality of earnings. If you just judge these businesses on EPS growth, they'll all look pretty good.

I think there is a lot of risk in businesses that focus on the temporary placements of un-skilled, light-industrial, workers. This is an area where you can seperate two staffing firms that are both performing well, like Robert Half International (NYSE: RHI) and Manpower (NYSE: MAN).

Unskilled temporary staffing is subject to many potential risks that aren't so obvious. One surprising risk would be any increases in the prices of everyday household goods.

In 2007 the costs of gas prices, food, and other basic living costs increased dramatically. As these costs went up, wages for low income workers did not increase (minimum wage usually trails inflation). When this happens, unskilled temporary staffing companies experience shrinking margins. Recruiting on low wage positions also gets more difficult, and workers become increasingly dissatisfied and less reliable.

Rising costs of basic goods could hurt Manpower's bottom-line more than high, but steady, unemployment rates. Over the past five years costs of food, utility (gas) bills, gasoline, housing, and other goods declined (at first) and still haven't exploded upward; at the same time companies have preferred temporary hires of low-wage employees to full-time commitments. Could both of these trends be due for a change?

Unskilled labor=risky revenues

On the surface Manpower and RHI seem to have a lot in common. Both companies have done well through some tough times, and both beat on earnings in their most recent quarter. But they beat for very different reasons, Manpower's beat was mostly due to cost cuts. 

Robert Half on the other hand showed a 10% sales gain in their tech staffing business during the second quarter. The placement of IT and Accounting professionals is easily one of the highest margin sections of temporary staffing, and Robert Half's versions are both the best of breed.
RHI's growth in highly skilled placements is growing gross profit margins and led to a whopping EPS gain of 40% for the second quarter! Keep in mind, that's a 40% gain on last year's, already great, figures.  This company is beating quarters that beat previous quarters. As their CEO highlighted on RHI's second quarter call: "this was the 13th consecutive quarter in "which net income and earnings per share have grown 15 percent or more on a year-over-year basis."
While Manpower relies on lower margin placements, 80% of  Robert Half's revenues come from skilled staffing. If you're looking for something to separate "winners and losers" in the staffing industry, this is it.
In addition Manpower derives nearly 40% of its revenues from the troubled Southern European economy. As margins on unskilled workers are crimped, Manpower has had to take on a wider plate of clients. Taking on a wider range of clients exposes Manpower's industrial workers to potential workplace injuries, which opens up an entirely new risk to Manpower--higher worker compensation costs. Manpower is clearly a good business, but the risks are everywhere.
If I had to pick just one
As much as I like Robert Half, if I had to pick one staffing business in this market it likely wouldn't be one that focused on temporary business.
When recessions hit, I actually prefer temp business. Management positions are cut during recessions, and corporations like the flexibility that temporary placements offer for non-executive positions. But when things turn around executives are needed, and so are executive search (i.e. "permanent placement") firms.
So if I had to pick just one business in employment services it'd probably be Korn/Ferry (NYSE: KFY). This business specializes in highly skilled permanent placement staffing and consulting. They are "head hunters" with an outstanding reputation of finding executive level talent, in very competitive industries, for hefty fees.
Korn/Ferry is also coming off of another strong quarter, with EPS growth of 14% and sales growth of 20%. Revenue has increased double digits in each of the past two years, and margins increased 6% for Korn/Ferry last year.
I like that Korn/Ferry is also branching out into new employment consulting services, because they work in tandem with their permanent placement offerings. FutureStep, one of Korn/Ferry's fastest moving business units offers RPO (recruitment process outsourcing) consulting. What makes this an acceptable growth avenue for Korn/Ferry is that RPO services are very low-overhead, high-margin, services just like Executive Search.
It all fits, and it all is absent of the risks associated with temporary staffing.
If you're interested in the stock you'll want to check the different service offerings listed on their websites, as well as their nifty new acquisition of a recruiting software firm. But rest assured, this is the best and most trusted name in the world of "head hunting," and I doubt that any new growth avenues will take their focus off of that.
The best of the best
There's an important advantage that executive search firms hold over temporary staffing businesses, and it comes down to management. While Korn/Ferry has to do all of the upfront recruiting that a Manpower or Robert Half must do, once the placement is made they are free of any risk.
Korn/Ferry recruits candidates; Manpower and Robert Half recruit and manage candidates. Anything can happen once that placement is made.
So while I find Robert Half and Korn/Ferry equally impressive in their respective spaces, I think Korn/Ferry makes for a better stock pick at this stage.

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Adem Tahiri has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Robert Half International. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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