NORTH BAY – To the surprise of many North Bay experts, requests for permanent placements have made a comeback this month, suggesting a staffing industry recovery sooner than expected. Recruiters say the sector is by no means back on stable ground, but most forecast an upswing in the first or second quarter of 2010.

“It is definitely too early to say we are in recovery, but the trends are starting to look good and feel good, and we are really hopeful,” said Deja Lightner, regional vice president at Robert Half International in Santa Rosa.

The 12-year industry veteran said the company experienced slight positive growth this summer, with consistent increases into the fall, particularly in the accounting and finance sectors.

“A lot of the growth comes from companies looking to strategize hiring around positions that can forecast ways to increase money coming in or impact bottom-line savings. Customer service has also seen a lot of movement with a similar correlation, once the money is brought in they need good service to keep the customer there,” she said.

 Even more telling, several recruiters said employers have started to request more full-time placements. The direct-hire sector had almost entirely evaporated in 2009, but staffers have begun to see an uptick.

“We have seen a significant increase in direct hire recently, where at the beginning of the year we literally didn’t have any,” said Certified Employment Group Branch Manager Sherie DeHaven.

Though the client base is still down year over year, Nelson Staffing’s fall has also been positive.

“If you look at new clients generated, between January and September, we’ve seen more than a 100 percent increase. … In the last couple of weeks we have also seen some encouraging activity on the direct-hire side, but it’s difficult to really call a trend just yet,” said Nelson Staffing Senior Vice President Tony Bartenetti.

Financial, executive, wine and bookkeeping specialty firm Kreuzberger Associates also reported slight increases in the summer months with greater growth from September through the first part of the month.

“Based on past downturns, what we would expect as an early sign of a recovery is businesses slowly adding contract help to fill in where they’ve been backlogged on projects that are absolutely essential, but it’s almost as if they completely skipped the contract step and are now hiring full time,” said Neil Kreuzberger, founder of 25-year-old staffing company.

W.A. Hynes & Company in Petaluma and Ledgent staffing in Santa Rosa both said the first two weeks of November were their biggest months of 2009.

Senior-level recruiting firm Executive Search Associates reported about a 20 percent increase in openings in October and the first two weeks of November compared year-over-year.

Senior Partner Jennifer Laxton said her clients are just now bringing in more contract labor, but with the expressed intent of taking them on full time in the first quarter. Despite the slight increase in hiring, she said it is still very much an employers’ market.

“Employers are still expressing unreasonably high expectations if they do hire," Ms. Laxton said. She also cautioned against overloading or failing to acknowledge the efforts of current employees.  "My two cents is employers beware because when the economy does switch, you will lose your best talent,” Ms. Laxton said.

Most recruiters said openings have been concentrated in specific sectors.

Strada Resources President Phil Boldt described the market still as “slow and cautious.” Compared to the complete drop off last October, he said his clients seem to be faring a little better.

“I think we will really see things start to happen in first if not second quarter of 2010,” he said.