Though the job market by several measures remains sluggish, the employment outlook for 2012 calls for continued, albeit modest, improvement. A recent survey by Manpower Inc. shows that many U.S. businesses expect to hire more workers during the first three months of the new year.
"Slow, but steady momentum has improved employer confidence, which is likely why more employers are planning to hire in the first quarter," Jonas Prising, president of the Americas at Milwaukee-based Manpower, says in a statement accompanying release of the findings. Though the increase is encouraging, Prising says, hiring plans remain uncertain for a "historically high proportion of employers."
The survey of 18,000 U.S. employers found that 14 percent planned to increase staff levels during the first three months of the year, while 9 percent planned decreases, Manpower says. The bulk of employers -- 70 percent -- anticipated no changes in staffing levels, while the remaining 7 percent said they were unsure.
While improving, the current labor market is characterized by two very distinct trends affecting employers and job seekers differently, says Dwain Celistan, executive vice president at DHR International Chicago, an executive search firm.
Employers are optimistic and continue to gradually fill positions, Celistan tells AOL Jobs in an interview. "In some instances, where they have reduced staffs below [comfortable] levels," he says, "they are adding back leaders."
More than anything, employers these days are looking for applicants with "functional expertise," someone who is already doing the kind of job needing to be filled. Employers are also seeking candidates who currently work within the same or an aligned industry, he says, and who live within commuting distance.
The latter trend reflects the demise of generous relocation packages that employers typically offered until just a few years ago as a way to ensure getting top talent. "The packages now are not nearly as robust as they have been historically," Celistan says, noting that job seekers open to relocating can count on shouldering some of the cost.
In the coming year, Celistan also expects employers to continue to rely on contract workers, a trend also forecast by Elance, a site that helps match employers and freelancers.
Employers like the flexibility that comes with tapping freelance talent and that trend is expanding, increasing the need for workers with specialized skills, such as software developers, graphic designers, web researchers -- even accountants, Elance says.
Companies increasingly are moving into foreign markets to help deliver professional skills. In 2011, U.S.-based contractors deployed their services to more than 140 countries, while global hiring of U.S. workers saw a significant increase in more than 60 countries, according to Elance.
Technological advances -- high-speed Internet access, sophisticated mobile devices and advanced security software -- continue to help push more jobs into the virtual realm, allowing more Americans to find work without having to go to an office and allowing many of them to build independent careers, Elance says.
Though job market appears sluggish to many job seekers, DHR International's Celistan suggests that a dearth of jobs isn't to blame, but rather picky employers, looking for just the right employee.
Those looking for work should focus on areas in which they are already expert and have been working steadily during the past three to five years, he says.
That's vastly different from just a few years ago when businesses were keen on hiring generalists, people with well-rounded skills that could be "plugged in" to virtually any post. And that, Celistan says, is "the piece that many [jobseekers] find difficult."
For more tips on finding a job in the new year, check out these tips from Ivy Exec, a Manhattan-based executive search firm.