PNC finds improving outlook for small-business hiring

I think all of us would love to see a blowout month for job creation one of these first Fridays when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its widely watched employment report.

The consensus forecast among economists is that the U.S. economy added 185,000 jobs in March. If that figure holds, it's no blowout, but it's better than a year ago.

And that's what many of the various surveys that track employment and hiring expectations are saying -- things are slowly improving. On Thursday, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group issued its semi-annual economic outlook survey of small and mid-sized business owners that suggests "cautious optimism" is replacing "fear of falling sales."

That may not inspire dancing in the streets, but PNC senior economist Robert Dye said the shift indicates that small businesses are now beginning to see better days ahead with 50 percent of Pennsylvania business owners surveyed expecting high sales for the next six months, up from 43 percent in October and 34 percent in April 2010.

The ADP National Employment Report, released on Wednesday, found small and medium-sized businesses were responsible for 184,000 of the 201,000 jobs the payroll company said were created in March.

Even the CEOs of the nation's biggest companies seem more inclined to hire than fire, according to the Business Roundtable's CEO survey for the first quarter. Fifty-two percent of the 142 CEOs who responded said they expect to increase employment during the next six months, while just 11 percent foresee a decrease.

Dye said PNC sees the economy creating 180,000 to 200,000 jobs, on average, each month through 2011. "We'll finish the year feeling better than we started," he said.