CPAs who are also business executives are becoming more optimistic about their hiring plans, according to a new survey by the American Institute of CPAs.

[IMGCAP(1)]The third-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey polled CEOs, CFOs, controllers and other CPAs in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.

Only a slight 51 percent majority of survey takers said their companies or organizations have the right number of employees. But nearly one out of five of the company executives polled now say they expect to hire new staffers in the coming year, compared to 17 percent last quarter and 13 percent at the end of 2013. Another 18 percent said they had too few employees but were hesitant to hire because of economic uncertainty.

Finding job candidates with the right skills is becoming more difficult, however, according to many of the respondents’ comments. For the second straight quarter, “availability of skilled personnel” was cited as the No. 3 top challenge for businesses, behind “regulatory requirements and changes” (No. 1) and “domestic economic conditions” (No. 2).

“AICPA’s survey results echo a key concern for businesses, which is the mismatch between open staff positions and the pool of qualified candidates available to fill them,” AICPA Business and Industry Executive Committee vice chair Valerie Rainey said in a statement. “That may explain why the findings show an uptick in plans for spending on training and other workforce investments.”

Headcount is now expected to increase by 1.8 percent over the next year, an improvement over the 1.3 percent growth expectation last quarter. More than 22 percent of the CPA company executives surveyed said they planned to increase their number of employees by 4 percent or more. Less than four percent said they planned to decrease payroll by that amount.

Anticipated growth in spending on training over the next year edged up from 1.8 percent last quarter to 2 percent, its highest level since the recession.

The CPA Outlook Index—a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the AICPA survey— rose two points in the third quarter to 74, a post-recession high. The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and greater numbers signifying positive sentiment.

Every category of the index increased on both a quarterly and yearly basis. The biggest increases in the past quarter pertained to three key performance indicators—expected profit, revenue and employment growth—which all rose 5 points.

For the second straight quarter, a majority of business executives (52 percent) expressed optimism about the U.S. economy for the coming year. Survey takers were also more favorable about prospects for their own companies (65 percent expressed optimism, up four percentage points from last quarter).

The most optimistic sector for the coming year is professional, scientific and technical services, while health care providers are the most pessimistic.

Technology, one of the most upbeat sectors in recent years, fell sharply in optimism in the past quarter, however, but hiring expectations for technology still outpace the average for the coming year.

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