The employment outlook in accounting and finance is expected to stabilize in the first quarter, according to a new survey of CFOs, although the hiring environment remains challenging for now.

Staffing company Robert Half International found that a net 3 percent of the 1,400 CFOs interviewed for the survey plan to reduce their accounting and finance personnel in the first quarter of 2010, but this represents an improvement from the net 6 percent forecast the previous quarter. Most executives —  84 percent — expect no changes to their staffing levels.

Six percent of executives plan to increase hiring in the first quarter and 9 percent foresee personnel reductions. Compared to the fourth-quarter projections, the number that anticipated adding staff rose while the number projecting cutbacks declined.

CFOs also expressed confidence in their companies’ growth prospects. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they are “very confident” they will see business growth in the first quarter, while 45 percent described themselves as “somewhat confident.”

“Companies remain cautious about hiring and are maintaining their current personnel levels until they gain confidence in the long-term economic outlook,” said Robert Half International chairman and CEO Max Messmer. “However, some firms have found they reduced staff too aggressively, while others may recognize they can only cut so deeply before it affects their ability to meet growth demands.”

Despite current unemployment levels, CFOs continue to report challenges finding highly skilled professionals for certain functional areas. Twenty-five percent of financial executives said accounting roles are the hardest to fill, and 20 percent said they experience the most difficulty hiring for operational support positions. 

The Middle Atlantic states (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) are projected to experience the most active hiring in the first quarter: A net 5 percent of CFOs in the region anticipate adding full-time accounting and finance staff.

“Hiring in the Middle Atlantic states is being driven primarily by the healthcare, insurance and professional services sectors,” Messmer said. “There is notable demand for financial analysts and professionals with a regulatory background.”

While most industries project net decreases in personnel levels during the first three months of the new year, a net 4 percent of CFOs in the manufacturing sector predict a rise in hiring. In addition, 85 percent of manufacturing executives said they are very or somewhat confident about their companies’ growth prospects in the first quarter.

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