Unemployed? Target the South with your job search.

Columbus, Ga. headlines a group of southern cities who forecast strong hiring in the first quarter of 2010.

By , Correspondent

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    An exhibit at the Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. Expansion at nearby Fort Benning has Columbus employers — among those in other southern cities — forecasting employment gains in the first quarter of 2010.
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If you're unemployed, there's really only direction you can head: south.

In most parts of the United States, the economy seems to be slowly on the mend. Several more months of growth should convince employers to start hiring again. But if you're searching for a job right now, the place to go is the South.

Of the 25 cities where the most businesses will expand hiring next quarter, 23 are located south of the Mason-Dixon line, according to a new survey by Manpower Research.

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The nation's leader? Metropolitan Columbus, Ga. (which includes a bit of Alabama), where a full quarter of businesses expect to increase their employment rolls during the first three months of 2010. Only 7 percent of employers say they will lower their employment, according to the survey, for a net gain of +18 points. That's far better than the national net forecast, which is +6 points.

Columbus's bright outlook comes from a confluence of strong economic trends, says Lee Snider, a research analyst at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

One community economic mainstay, insurance company AFLAC, has been adding employees, Mr. Snider says. The other, the US military, delivered a bonanza: Because of national realignment plan for military bases, Columbus stands to see an additional 30,000 military trainees — and their families and friends — pass through training grounds there. Upgrades to nearby Fort Benning will total about $3.5 billion, Snider says, a process that will begin running hot at the beginning of 2010.

Couple that with the outside infusion of a Kia Motors plant that pushed its first vehicle off the line last month and the opening of a factory making ATMs for NCR Corp., and "that's a pretty good plateful," Snider says.

Looking for a strong state for employment? Try Texas. Five of the top 10 metro areas for increased employment outlook are in the state, led by San Antonio with 19 percent of its employers expecting to hire.

The only two cities north of the Mason-Dixon line that are in the Top 25 of hiring expectations are No. 13 Duluth, Minn., (17 percent) and No. 25 Hartford, Conn., at 15 percent.

Almost three quarters of employers don't expect any change in their workforce between January and March, the highest mark since the survey began in 1962.

Unfortunately, the hiring forecasts for some places already rocked by the recession are grim. A quarter of employers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, say they will drop workers. And about a fifth of businesses in Detroit, East Lansing, Mich., Springfield, Mass., and Oklahoma City say they will cut their employment.

America's most indecisive captains of industry are in Peoria, Ill., where 10 percent of employers aren't sure whether they'll be increasing or decreasing their workforce. That's the nation's highest percentage.

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David Grant is a Monitor correspondent. Seeing signs of pumped up job growth near you? Let us know on Twitter.

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