Once upon a time, in 1985, Emmett McGrath earned $4.20 an hour working as a nighttime recruiter in the Los Angeles office of Yoh Services LLC, a staffing and recruitment company headquartered in Philadelphia.

"That's something I need to bring back, because it was brilliant. Everybody is home at night," said McGrath, now 55. "I started at 5 p.m. I was 23, going to school during the day."

Now McGrath is Yoh's president, second only to Yoh brothers Harold and William. As chairman and chief executive, Harold "Hal" 3d chairs the entire Day & Zimmermann enterprise from Philadelphia while his brother, William, chairs Yoh, a subsidiary.

McGrath worked for Yoh for 20 years before he was recruited by a competitor. The company was $180 million in sales when he started and $2 billion when he left, he said. Next, he ran his own staffing business. In January, he returned to Yoh as executive vice president, and he became president in April.

"It's surreal a little bit, because I cut my teeth in this company," McGrath said. "I grew up in this company."

Is it hard to command respect from the people who knew you when?

One strength I have is that I have the credibility that comes from coming up through the ranks. We have a lot of offices, but I know everybody. I still have to prove myself. I don't want anyone to think I'm taking anything for granted. It's really been beautiful how I've been received. I think the company is at a stage where it needs new ideas and someone who gets Yoh, too. It's a very unique skill set.

What are the most difficult jobs to fill?

For information technology, cybersecurity is becoming really big, but there are not enough people certified in certain technologies. In the life sciences, it's hard to find biostatisticians. The way you get good at it is that your recruiters aren't jacks-of-all-trades. So I have recruiters that only do biostatisticians and SAS programmers for clinical trials. So they're not going to do a sheet metal mechanic one day and an SAS programmer the next. They're well known in those communities. They network. They have credibility.

But you weren’t a specialist when you started?

We did everything, but I was pretty good at engineering. I had Nestle, who was a big client, so I knew everything about sanitary piping systems. So I got really well-known in the community [for understanding] machines, mechanical and electrical, for food processing. So, the way you do it is, they're the experts — not you. You ask questions. They educate you. You become an expert because you learn it from the candidates.

Plus, they’re flattered.

They're flattered, but you know what? There's nothing better than having a recruiter in your back pocket. If I were starting a staffing company today, I'd be leveraging LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a wonderful tool — you can really zero in. If I wanted to just stick with quality engineering experts in the Food and Drug Administration, I'd look for every pharmaceutical biotech in Pennsylvania. So I'd make contacts. I wouldn't go on a sales call for six months. I'd get to know every single quality engineer in the area. You've got to be a sleuth. You've got to be proactive.

Breathing. I'm a big breather and I meditate. I have certain rituals I go through. I always have intentions every day, just prayer. People that are ill, people that are less fortunate than I am.

Do you keep a prayer list?

No, but my mom does, on her refrigerator. If you make the refrigerator list, you are in good hands. I still go to church. I'm a believer. I say a prayer every day that someone's going to come up in the ranks in ISIS who is going to change things — someone that will say 'We've become too violent. We've lost our way.' It's going to happen one day. So I have world stuff, and family stuff, and kids' stuff. I pray for their safety. I start my day with those reflections. While I'm in the shower, for sure. Or if I'm exercising, hiking, or walking.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.


Home: San Jose, California

Family: Wife, Marianne McGrath; Children, Kate, 26, Daniel, 21.

Diplomas: California State University, business administration, human resources.

Early ambition: Singer-songwriter -- "I thought I'd be the next James Taylor."


Where: Philadelphia, a division of Day & Zimmermann.

Business: Recruiting, contract worker management, outsourced recruiting, payroll services, temporary staffing.

Ownership: Privately held by the Yoh family.

People: 600 employees, 6,500 contractors on payroll.