April 2004--Small businesses are optimistic about the future and plan to hire accordingly, said an American Express survey released this month.

Of the 723 small businesses surveyed, a third reported they have are seeking to fill either a full-time or part-time position. Most, 19%, said they plan to hire part-time staff, while 11% said they plan to hire full-time staff.

Among those planning to hire, 81% cited growing business as the reason they planned to take on additional staff. In fact, 72% of small businesses said they see growth opportunities for their companies over the next six months--a 16% increase from the same study done last spring. Forty-one percent of businesses planned to introduce new products or services, enter new markets or increase investments in their company.

Companies are offering more incentives to prospective employees than last year, reported the survey. Seventy-eight percent of companies said they plan to offer new employees flexible work hours, up 18% from last year. Sixty-two percent will offer paid vacations, a 10% increase over last year, and 19% will subsidize commutes, a 7% increase.

The one benefit that didn't see an increase, however, was healthcare. Only about half of hiring businesses said they would offer health benefits to new employees.

Still, the study is good news for the unemployed, which to date have numbered between 5% and 6% of the U.S. labor force.

The 5.8 million small businesses in the United States employ nearly half of all U.S. workers.