BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Job seekers may find their hunt a little easier over the next few weeks.
Even with uncertainty and economic volatility at home and financial crisis looming abroad, the traditional trend of new year/Q1 hiring is expected to be a factor.
Conventional wisdom has it that companies -- after ending their year lean and profit focused -- loosen their purse strings and ramp up hiring in the first quarter. This seasonal impact is typically more powerful than otherwise detrimental economic forces.
"The lows may be lower and the highs may be muted, or even higher," says Jeff Joerres, CEO of global staffing and employment services firm ManpowerGroup (Stock Quote: MAN). "It all depends on what is happening, but there are still seasonal effects that take place and hiring trends."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in December private-sector job growth was 167,000 positions, a number that fell to 94,000 the following month before spiking to 261,000 jobs in February.
Joerres says December and January hiring slows as a result of holiday-related slowdowns and the ramping down of seasonal employees. That slowdown creeps into January as well, before a hiring uptick that usually arrives in February and March.
"People finally have their approved budget, their hiring plan and the head counts they have been screaming for, even if maybe they can only hire four people instead of the six they wanted. Then they can start the process," he says.
Jennifer Schramm, manager of the workplace trends and forecasting program at the Society for Human Resource Management, adds that the pent-up demand for workers is also due to the difficulty getting everyone at a company together at the same time amid the season's many vacations.
"Especially if they have a panel of interviewers, they may have to hold off until they can get everybody back together," she says.
January marked the third consecutive month that hiring activity will decrease and job cuts will rise on an annual basis, according to projections in an SHRM report. The January hiring expectations follow its analysis of month-over-month and year-over-year hiring patterns at 500 service-sector companies and 500 manufacturing companies.
"While overall more employers are planning to hire than lay off staff this month, the net employment expectations are lower compared with January 2011," said Schramm as part of that analysis. "More growth is needed to continue to bring down the unemployment rate."
Charles Purdy, senior editor at Monster.com, says that, in addition to job openings being scaled back at the end of the year, job seekers themselves typically retreat from their hunt. The reason is a mix of holiday distractions and the assuption that companies are in a hiring hold.
He cautions against these assumptions, as a smaller pool of candidates can help those applicants vying for the jobs that are made available. And, just as refreshed budgets can spur hiring, so too can the end-of-year concerns of managers who fear that "if I don't fill this position now, they are going to freeze my budget in Q1."
Schramm agrees that because some department heads are faced with "use-it-or-lose-it budgets" it's "always good not to let up on your job search over the winter."
Joerres says that no matter how bleak the job picture may appear, job seekers owe it to themselves to never let up on their search. He admits, though that "it's much easier to say than to do."
"It can be discouraging," he says. "Sometimes it feels like it's all about luck."
The new year's hiring landscape can be a mixed blessing for college students who graduate in December, ahead of the majority of their peers who do so in the spring.
"It depends," Purdy says. "They could have a leg up because there is not a large mass of college graduates hitting the market. By the same token, recruiters are more actively looking for candidates in the spring than they are right now. It cuts both ways."
Joerres says that, in past years, early grads have succeeded by getting a head start on their classmates, "but not this year."
He explains that there remains a lingering "hangover" and "backup" from last year's springtime graduates who have still not found jobs. He fears they might be a lost generation of sorts, left ignored as recruiters chase fresh graduates. Companies could also ignore graduates who have been on the job hunt for a year or more and set their sights on candidates with job experience.
Early graduates may be able to turn their challenge into a benefit, Purdy says. Because recruiters are less active, and employers are not flooded with job seekers, "now is a great time to create something more meaningful" by approaching employers with "a creative pitch for a customized internship, for example."
"You really need to understand that it is up to you to create those new opportunities," he adds.
How many jobs could be added in the months and year ahead?
Well's Fargo's (Stock Quote: WFC) economics group, in its 2012 Economic Outlook, is calling for slow and steady job growth throughout the year. The banking giant expects the creation of about 123,000 jobs per month, roughly 1.5 million positions by the end of 2012.
ManpowerGroup estimates that approximately 9% of employers will add jobs in the first quarter of 2012.
Survey data collected by staffing company Robert Half International (Stock Quote: RHI) projects that an estimated 10% of employers will hire professional-level staff in the first quarter of 2012.
Approximately one in three lawyers interviewed for its quarterly hiring index plan to add legal staff in the first quarter of 2012, with an average of two full-time positions (including lawyers, paralegals and legal secretaries) in Q1. Also, 20% of CIOs said they plan to expand their IT departments in Q1, and that same percentage of CFOs plan to add full-time accounting and finance employees.