It used to be that trends in the staffing industry reliably predicted future employment patterns, but as with so many other aspects of the economy, the last whopper of a recession knocked out all the rules.

"I've been in this business a long time, and in previous recessions, when companies had to scale back, they [first] scaled back on their contingent work force, their staffing, their contractors, their outside agencies," said David G. Donald, chief executive of PeopleShare, a staffing agency in Pottstown.

Donald, 51, keeps an eye on labor trends for his business, but also in his volunteer position as board vice chairman of PhiladelphiaWorks, the city agency that runs CareerLink job search centers for unemployed people.

"This recession was so bad," Donald said. "Companies were looking to survive. They often cut permanent head count and kept temporaries on board.

"The reason they did that was some of their permanent people had higher salaries, much higher benefit costs. The temporary employees were a way for them to survive. I had never seen it before, with the exception of this last recession. I think it was an indication of how bad that recession was."

Many people lost work in the recession and found that being laid off counted against them in the job market. As a recruiter, how do you see that?

Everyone we place didn't have a job, because nobody is quitting a [permanent] job to take a temp-to-hire job. If we truly have a 6 percent unemployment rate, 94 percent of the workforce is working. We can't recruit them. We're recruiting from that 6 percent.

So you don't necessarily see a layoff as a stigma?

We just take a very close look at why somebody was unemployed and use their track record of success as an indicator of their future success. Of that 6 percent of the population, a lot are unemployed for a lot of good reasons and will remain unemployed. We have to find the best of that 6 percent.

And you probably are aware of which companies had the mass layoffs - such as a Merck or AstraZeneca, both nearby.

We actually go to those companies to recruit. When they announce layoffs, we go to them and say, "How can we help your people?"

Did you personally ever have a temp job?

I worked for Manpower while I was in college. It was residential moving. It was literally carrying furniture from the third floor to a truck and from the basement to a truck.

You interview a lot of people. Any hints?

I can give you a technique we use with a salesperson. By how they read a menu, I can tell if they're a closer or not. It directly translates. A salesperson that doesn't look at the entire menu, but orders the first or second thing that they see, they're a closer.

What does it indicate if your potential salesperson wants to peruse the whole menu?

Somebody that looks at the entire menu, when they go to a customer and the customer says, "I really like what you have to offer, but I need to talk to three other companies before I make a decision," that [salesperson] is going to [say], "I completely understand, Mr. Customer. You go ahead." The closer is going to [say], "What we have to offer is the best. You don't need to see everything else."

Wow, if I want to switch to sales, I'll never go out to lunch with you. Any other hints?

Ride-alongs - go ride with one of our sales reps to see what their day looks like. We'll let [the candidate] drive. If they drive with a sense of urgency, they have it. If they drive really slowly and are really cautious about where they park, those are not good traits.

How does your temp-to-hire process work?

Employers get to try [candidates] out and work with them before they become their employee. If they do a great job, [the employer] can easily convert them. We pay an employee a certain amount of money, and we charge the customers more. They keep them on our payroll for about three months. Then they can hire them at no charge.

What predicts success?

When we place somebody on assignment, we have this dollar per hour per mile rule. Somebody making $12 an hour needs to live within 12 miles of where they're working for it to be long-term and sustainable.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.