A net 2 percent of CFOs said they plan to hire full-time accounting and finance professionals in the first quarter of 2011, according to a new survey.

While modest, the number represents an increase from the fourth-quarter projection by CFOs surveyed by staffing company Robert Half International and is the strongest showing in more than two years in the Robert Half Financial Hiring Index.

Eighty-eight percent of the 1,400 CFOs polled expressed confidence in their firms' growth potential in the first quarter, and businesses also report greater hiring difficulty. 50 percent of the executives interviewed said it is challenging to locate highly skilled finance professionals, four points higher than the previous quarter and up from 34 percent in the second-quarter survey.

"As business needs rise, companies are more open to hiring on both a full-time and temporary basis," said Robert Half International chairman and CEO Max Messmer in a statement. "Some firms that made deep personnel cuts are now finding their teams are too lean to maintain quality service and meet increased customer demands."

The West South Central states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas are expected to see the most hiring activity in the first quarter. A net 14 percent of CFOs plan to add full-time accounting and finance professionals.

Above-average hiring activity also is predicted in the Pacific region of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. Seven percent of CFOs there expect to add staff and 3 percent anticipate declines, a net 4 percent increase in hiring activity.

Across the United States, financial executives in the wholesale industry are most likely to hire additional staff in the upcoming quarter. Ten percent of wholesale industry respondents plan to expand their teams and none expect staff reductions.

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