FORTUNE -- Looking for signs that this lackluster economic recovery might finally start generating more jobs? How about this: When global staffing behemoth Manpower Group polled 18,000 U.S. employers in a wide range of industries about their hiring plans for the fourth quarter of this year, about 18% said they expect to add headcount in the next three months. Only 8% think they may have to shrink their staffs.
That may not sound like earth-shaking news -- after all, it still means that at least four out of five U.S. companies don't plan to add workers -- but it is the brightest hiring picture Manpower's quarterly surveys have found since the fourth quarter of 2007.
"The recovery is still uncertain, but employers are getting used to that," says Manpower chairman and CEO Jeff Joerres. "In several industries, and in particular parts of the country, demand is picking up enough for a slow-but-steady increase in hiring." The largest portion of new jobs will come from retail and wholesale trade, leisure and hospitality, construction, and manufacturing, according to the poll.
Companies in the Northeast and in Western states say they'll bring on the most new workers. Among the 50 states, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas are tied for first place in hiring plans. Employers in all 100 major metropolitan areas expect some job growth, with Houston leading the pack.
Great, but there's a catch. Not all of the new openings are traditional full-time jobs. The proportion of workers serving as temps, freelancers, and project workers has been rising for some years now -- the General Accounting Office now puts their numbers at about one-third of the working population -- and that trend is likely to continue.
"It's partly because of persistent economic uncertainty," Joerres says. "But it's also because, more and more, employers are being squeezed by global competition, changing regulations, and other market forces. They're realizing they need to be more flexible and agile in order to respond."
As a result, job seekers may need to be more flexible than in the past, as well. Joerres says many of Manpower's big corporate clients have sworn off a kind of binge-and-purge approach to headcount, hiring lots of full-time employees in boom times and then laying them off in economic downturns.
"Now, they're telling us, 'This time around, we're staying on a sensible diet,' changing their staffing strategy to include a more efficient mix of full-time and contingent workers," he says. "It's a different business model, and it means that your entry into a company where you'd like to work may have to be non-traditional" -- that is, freelance, temporary, or project-based.
Joerres says that more of Manpower's clients have started using short-term, no-strings-attached assignments to try people out before deciding to hire them, or not. "They're being more cautious and selective than in the past, trying to see, first of all, does this job really need doing long-term?" says Joerres. "And, if so, is a particular candidate the right 'fit'?"
The increased reliance on non-traditional staff means that even people who have full-time jobs right now "are under more pressure than before," he adds. "It's not about living in fear, but it is a question of being ready to move quickly if you have to. I call it employment security, as opposed to job security. If you keep your skills very sharp, and constantly add new ones, you'll be ready on short notice to go where they're needed." Here's hoping.
Before talking money with an employer who's hiring you from a temp agency, it helps to understand the math -- and get ready for a pay cut. By Anne FisherAnne Fisher, contributor - Oct 12, 2012 11:49 AM ET
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