Outlook for early 2017 shows good jobs still hard to find

Could automation create more jobs?

Economic and market enthusiasm has been on the rise, but hiring plans remain muted, as shown by a survey of more than 11,000 employers.

The net portion of companies expecting to increase their hiring in the first quarter of 2017 actually is slightly lower than it has been for anytime during 2016, according to results from ManpowerGroup's employment outlook survey released Tuesday.

Nineteen percent of firms said they plan on increasing employment, 6 percent expect to decrease it, and 73 percent see no change. The net of 13 percent is the lowest since the first quarter of 2015.

"Looking at the backdrop following a period of political uncertainty not just in the U.S. but around the world, from our standpoint it's a signal of stability," said Chris Layden, managing director of ManpowerGroup's Experis business. "It's not a robust hiring report."

The report's authors called the trend "a positive sign," though underlying numbers show that some of the issues bedeviling the U.S. jobs market are likely to continue.

The biggest area of hiring will be leisure and hospitality, a growth area for jobs during the recovery but one that doesn't help fix the stagnant wages that have been prevalent throughout. Some 30 percent of employers in the profession intend to increase hiring, while just 7 percent expect cutbacks, according to numbers not seasonally adjusted.

Woman waits for a job at the Command Center temporary employment agency in Williston, North Dakota, on September 6, 2016.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The second-best area is wholesale and retail trade [23 percent growing against 5 percent cutting back] while professional and business services are next, with 22 percent increasing and 6 percent decreasing.

More broadly, it's a familiar story for the jobs market in which specialized positions go unfilled, while lower-level jobs continue to surge.

"When you look at the structural changes that have happened in the labor market, I think you're going to see the bifurcation get worse, honestly, before it gets better," Layden said. "Jobs are requiring more and more specialized skills."

He pointed specifically to information technology and engineering, where workers are finding a better time moving up.

"Upskilling is something that will be constant," Layden said. "If we don't focus on it, we're going to have more and more people left behind."

Geographically, the Northeast looks the strongest, with an improvement of 1 percentage point over the fourth quarter of 2016.

The numbers come amid mostly better signals otherwise for the U.S. jobs market.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 178,000 in November while the headline unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent. Other surveys have been solid as well, with the National Federation of Independent Businesses reporting Tuesday that job creation plans swelled to a net 23 percent higher since the election.