[caption id="attachment_52458" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Sonoma County job growth and jobs, March 2001-February 2012 (click to enlarge)"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_52456" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Napa County job growth and jobs, March 2001-February 2012 (click to enlarge)"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_52457" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Solano County job growth and jobs, March 2001-February 2012 (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

Employers in Sonoma County are more confident about the prospect of hiring in the second quarter compared to last year, with 13 percent saying they expected to increase staffing levels, according to a quarterly survey by ManpowerGroup, an international staffing firm with a Santa Rosa location.

And overall in the North Bay, employers are generally more confident about the economy than they have been, suggesting that a slow but steady economic recovery is wending its way through region, employment experts said. 

"I think that employers are starting to see momentum in the economy, much of it fueled by the equity market ramp up and some bottoming out on housing prices," said Dr. Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University's executive MBA program and a Frank Howard Allen Research Fellow. "Consumer confidence has continued to rise, as have retail sales."

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[caption id="attachment_52339" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="Rob Eyler"][/caption]

In the first quarter of 2012, 8 percent of Sonoma County employers said they expected to increase staffing levels, according to the Manpower survey. Another 8 percent in the first quarter said they expected to decrease staffing levels. In the second quarter, only 4 percent said the same, while 79 percent said they expected keep levels the same. This year, 83 percent said they expected to maintain current staffing levels, compared to 76 percent a year ago. The survey put the net employment outlook -- planned hiring activity versus planned decreases -- at a net 9 percent improvement, compared to 3 percent a year ago.

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"Empirically, we're seeing improvement in the number of jobs that we're being asked to fill," said David Ohman, branch manager of Santa Rosa's Manpower. "We have seen an improving trend since basically last summer."

Nicole Smartt, vice president and co-owner of Star Staffing, similarly said that her firm has seen positive hiring trends in the last quarter and over the year. Star Staffing has offices in Petaluma, Healdsburg and Napa with satellite offices in Sonoma and Ukiah.

[caption id="attachment_52341" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Nicole Smartt"][/caption]

"We've seen a tremendous uptick in clerical orders from CEOs to accounting, administrative assistants to web and graphic designers," she said. "We've seen huge improvement in manufacturing, engineering, accounting and technical services."

Both Ms. Smartt and Mr. Ohman said their firms have seen an increase in temporary-to-permanent placements, and Mr. Ohman said there were more permanent placements than temporary hires.

But unemployment rates still remain stubbornly high throughout both the North Bay and much of California, with the exception of Marin County, which has the lowest rate in the state at 6.6 percent, according to the most recent figures released by the Employment Development Department.

Sonoma County had an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent in February, unchanged from January and below the previous February’s rate of 10.3 percent.  Napa County’s rate edged downward to 8.9 percent in February from 9.2 percent in January, compared to 10.1 percent the previous February. The jobless rate in Solano County crept upward to 10.9 percent in February from 10.8 percent in January, compared with 12.2 percent in February 2011. Statewide, the  rate in February was 11.4 percent, while the national rate hit a three-year low of 8.3 percent.

There has been improvement, but the recovery has taken hold slower in the region than elsewhere in the country and select counties in California, both Mr. Ohman and Dr. Eyler said. 

"It's not a massive increase, but we're seeing more demand for temporary labor," Mr. Ohman said, adding that other areas where Manpower has offices -- particularly the Sacramento-Delta area and the South Bay -- have seen similar improvement. "This doesn't seem to be limited to one area. California finally seems to be seeing some of the improvement that the rest of the country has been seeing for a while."

Improvements in employment differ somewhat in each county, according to Dr. Eyler.

"In Sonoma County, hiring is all over the map in terms of industries," he said. "In Napa, it is likely to be more concentrated in construction, hospitality, wine, as direct or indirect support for the tourism trade and expansion of downtown Napa options.

"In Solano, their energy and life sciences economies are likely to see some boosts in the second quarter, where food and agriculture will be seasonally rising, but probably not beyond the seasonal. In Marin, the focus is likely to be in tech, health care and professional services, with a sprinkle in construction."