While U.S. employers are more optimistic about the economy and job market than in recent past, the majority plan to keep their staff levels as they are now through 2009. This determination was reported in the CareerBuilder and USA Today Q4 2009 Job Forecast [PDF], the result of a Harris Interactive survey of nearly 3000 hiring managers and FTE human resource professionals.

In the fourth quarter, 17 percent of employers expect to add full time permanent employees, 10 percent anticipate a decrease in staff, 68 percent expect no change, and five percent have not decided.Employers also reported that while they laid off workers in some divisions of their firms this past year, they also hired. Hiring was primarily in revenue-related areas such as technology, sales, customer service and research & development.

While 18 percent of the surveyed HR folks said their firms made pay cuts in the last twelve months, five percent of these same employers restored pay to previous levels in the third quarter. Another 12 percent plan to do so in Q4. Of those who laid off staff, 21 percent will bring them back to work in the first quarter of 2010, and 15 percent will do so in Q210.

Most job opportunities are in the South, due to its growth in health care, education and energy providers. The West continues to trail other regions in hiring, due to its serious housing market crash and slowdown in international trade. The West also has the highest percentage of employees still planning lay offs – 14 percent.

“Companies are switching their focus from cost containment to growth,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder, in the report. “Employers who have instituted pay cuts or layoffs in the last year are reporting that they have begun to restore compensation levels and rehire employees. While these are positive indicators, the pace of hiring will remain restrained. It will take time to rebuild the confidence needed in the nation’s economy to trigger more robust recruitment programs.”