Good news for people seeking work – U.S. companies are planning to hire in 2012.

So say corporate chief financial officers in the quarterly survey conducted by Duke University and CFO Magazine.

CFOs plan to increase hiring by 2.1 percent this year which means the U.S. unemployment rate could drop under 8 percent, the survey’s authors predict.

“The expected increase in employment is a welcome improvement over last quarter’s 1.5 percent forecast growth rate,” said Kate O’Sullivan of CFO Magazine. “It indicates that national unemployment should fall below 8 percent in 2012.”

The overall CFO Optimism Index improved to 59 out of 100 this quarter from 53 last quarter.

A survey of chief marketing officers by Duke last week found similar optimism. (Read here.)

The UNC-Chapel Hill and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants are due to release their quarterty economic survey on Thursday.

If CFOs are optimistic, then the economy is recovering, in the view of the Duke finance professor who directs the survey.

“This rebound is encouraging because increases in CFO optimism have historically preceded improvements in the overall economy,”said John Graham. “Optimism also rebounded in Europe and Asia, suggesting that 2012 should be a better year than 2011. Still, European optimism lags behind the rest of the world.”

CFOs in Asia are more optimistic about the economy, too, but in Europe the outlook remains glum.

More than 870 CFOs were surveyed through March 1.

Key findings from the survey as cited by Duke and CFO Magazine:

  • “Earnings and capital spending are both expected to rise more than 7 percent.
  • “U.S. finance chiefs plan to expand their workforces by slightly more than 2 percent on average over the next 12 months, a staffing increase that would bring the unemployment rate below 8 percent.
  • “Sixty-eight percent of U.S. CFOs say they are actively trying to fill vacant job positions, and many firms are recruiting more aggressively to fill the slots.
  • “Nearly 40 percent of U.S. CFOs say their firms will be active in mergers and acquisitions this year.”

One challenge on the hiring front is the finding of qualified workers. Almost half of the CFOs said they are having difficulty in recruiting.

However, the recovery is still at risk, according to Duke finance professor Campbell Harvey, who founded the study.

“The recovery is still very fragile,” Harvey said. “More than half of the largest firms see a significant threat to their businesses if there are bank failures in Europe.

‘”The high-tech industry is particularly worried about how Europe in disarray will impact their profits,” he added.

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