More employers are expected to start hanging those "Help Wanted" signs next year, according to a report released today.

The Manpower Employment Outlook Survey found that 10 percent of companies surveyed in Salt Lake City, Orem and Ogden plan to hire employees during the first quarter of 2004. Another 7 percent reported they likely will reduce their work forces, for a net gain of 3 percent.

"A net increase of 3 percent is a very, very modest increase, which is not too surprising," said Robert Katz, Manpower spokesman. "I think the country has seen some improvement, at least eking out of the recession. Because of productivity and so forth, it has been a kind of jobless recovery."

However, Katz said, "I think we're finally seeing that improve. Our industry is a good barometer of how the economy is doing. We're the first to be let go when there's a recession, and during times of recovery we're the first to be brought back. We're starting to see moderate increases in our industry, which to me indicates that our employers are starting to test the waters again."

Employers nationwide also are cautiously optimistic about hiring next quarter, according to Manpower's quarterly survey of 16,000 businesses. It says 20 percent of U.S. companies expect to hire more people in the first quarter, while 13 percent intend to cut jobs. The rest anticipate no change or are uncertain about hiring prospects from January to March.

"There is more confidence that employers are showing than previously. It's still not robust, but it's steady and improving," said Jeffrey A. Joerres, chairman and CEO of Manpower.

Joerres said most companies are hiring to meet increases in demands for goods and services but won't overhire for fear of having to lay off workers later.

"This is not going to be an easy environment for people to be finding jobs. So, it's still difficult out there," Joerres said.

Mark Knold, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said Utah employers already have started hiring, albeit cautiously. Total employment increased by 2,500 jobs from November 2002 to last month, and Knold predicted the hiring pace will pick up through 2004.

"I'm not saying we'll add 5,000 jobs in the month of February, but I think the rate of increase will go higher as we move into the first quarter of 2004," he said. "Right now we're 0.2 percent higher in November than we were in November of last year. The rate of increase could easily get up to 0.5 next year. We'd love to see something more along the lines of 2.5 or higher, but I'm not anticipating we'll hit that in 2004."

The business community, as a whole, is still acting conservatively when it comes to hiring, Knold said. Productivity gains are allowing some businesses to expand markets and demand without hiring.

But as the economic recovery strengthens through 2004, Knold said advances in technology and equipment implemented in the 1990s won't be enough to sustain growth. In late 2004 or early 2005, Knold predicted the economy will "gather a head of steam" and start demanding more workers, particularly in technology-related sectors.

"The economy is built like a train, where you have an engine and other cars running behind it," Knold said. "The new engine of the new economy is the technology sector."

After technology finds firmer footing, Knold said, the industries that feed off of it — transportation, warehousing, retail and other business services — should start to see gains.

"That may happen in the latter part of 2004," he said. "But you're probably not going to start seeing that translate into a whole year's worth of gains until 2005."

Contributing: The Associated Press; E-MAIL: