Glimmers of hope for higher wages

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You know that raise you've been holding out for since the Great Recession ended? This just may be your year to get it.

When the economic crisis sidelined millions of workers and sent the jobless rate soaring, U.S. employers essentially put raises on hold. Wage growth, already weak before the recession hit, has been virtually unchanged, when adjusted for inflation, since 2009.

It's not hard to see why. When employers can take their pick from a large pool of job seekers, they don't need to pay more to attract and keep good workers. But now, with the jobless rate falling steadily—to 5.6 percent last month from a peak for 10 percent in late 2009—many economists predict wages should begin rising again.

So far, that hasn't happened—according to the latest government data. But there are early signs that those official wage numbers could start moving higher this year.

Read MoreAmerican workers fed up with stalled wages

One comes from a recent research report from Principal Financial Group, a large pension and asset manager. The researchers looked at anonymous salary data covered by pensions plans offered by the company's 33,000 clients—mostly small and medium-size businesses.

What they found was that, while median salaries in their database also remained flat through 2013, those salaries rose last year more than 3 percent, much stronger than the 1.74 percent reported by the government.

"That suggests that we could see—as the unemployment continues to decline in the U.S.—that wage growth start to meaningfully accelerate this year within the broader government survey," according to Principal Global Investors economist Robin Anderson, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

There are other signs that employers may be ready to boost wages, especially small businesses. In its most recent survey of members, the National Federation of Independent Business found that roughly a quarter of those who responded reporting boosting compensation—with only 3 percent reporting wage cuts. That's a much better showing than the average response since the recession ended

"There's no question that small-business owners are feeling better about the economy," said William Dunkelberg, NFIB chief economist, in announcing the results. "If they continue to feel that way 2015 could be a very good year."

Large employers are also beginning to fatten workers' paychecks, according a survey released this week from the National Association for Business Economics.

"There are strong expectations for the first quarter, especially for jobs and wages, backed up by strong capital spending," said NABE President John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities.

With oil and other raw materials costs falling and profits rising, about a third of companies responding to the NABE survey said they're beginning to pass along some of those gains to workers in the form of higher wages. Over half said they expect to give out raises in the first three months of 2015.

Read MoreEconomists see prices falling, wages rising

And those at the bottom end of the income ladder are getting a boost from minimum wage increases. Though a proposal to raise the federal base pay rate has been stalled in Congress, 16 states have approved higher minimum wage laws. As of this month, 29 states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal base of $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 a year for a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job.

Though they account for less than 5 percent of the workforce, a relatively small increase for a minimum wage worker can have a fairly large impact on their wages in percentage terms

A possible uptick in wages is being watched closely by more than just the worker living on a flat salary. Officials at the Federal Reserve have based their easy-money, low interest rate policy, in part, on the belief that the weak economic recovery left a lot of "slack" in the labor market. Part of the reason was the large number of so-called discouraged workers who don't show up in the government's official count of people out of work.

A sustained rise in wages would indicate that the labor market has finally begin to tighten, a sign that the economy is strong enough to sustain higher interest rates. After five years of holding interest rates near zero, Fed officials are widely expected to begin raising rates later this year.