A quick look at the US jobs landscape over the past few months reveals a hopeful, if unspectacular, trend. First, unemployment rates have held steady at 6.7 percent since late January 2014, with job growth improving by a monthly average of about 187,000 since November 2013. Second, unemployment rates have come down from 7.5 percent in March 2013 and are expected to continue heading slowly downward as we move through 2014.

Middle market firms have a few reasons to feel positive about what this could mean for their financial and organizational health, in both the short and long term.

Retaining employees in an upward-trending job market

Consumers Slowly Gaining Confidence

March 2014 marked a critical point for private-sector employment: The U.S. economy had finally recovered the 8.8 million jobs that disappeared between December 2007 and February 2010, putting consumer demand just about back to where it needs to be in order for middle market firms to move forward.

Job gains that lead to stronger wage growth would provide even more of a boost by encouraging consumers to increase their spending, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of the economy. The Federal Reserve Bank is doing its part to encourage a bit of inflation. The April 9 release of the minutes for its March meeting showed that, even if unemployment rates fell to the Fed's previously identified target of 6.5 percent, the Fed would not increase its taper, or the rate of reduction of its bond purchases. This decision keeps the cost of money lower than it would be otherwise, as does the Fed's policy of a near-zero federal funds interest rate that will likely last well into 2015.

Consumer behavior is trending in the right direction, too, even if wages don't grow significantly in 2014. "Consumer sentiment has reversed its late-2013 slide, primarily due to improving labor market conditions and more confidence in individual household finances," said Joe Brusuelas, a senior economist for Bloomberg L.P., back in January (when the new-jobs number came in at just 144,000). "We'll likely see continued recovery in household sentiment throughout the year." A key number supporting Brusuelas' prediction is the increase by 2.1 percent of the total U.S. household debt in Q4 of last year, marking the largest quarterly increase since before the Great Recession began, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Midmarket companies should take note of these trends, even if they are not overwhelmingly positive. The figures point to a consumer market that's firming up enough so that middle market companies could at least consider raising the prices of their offerings. This would boost their bottom lines but also enable them to offer wage increases to those employees who are deemed the most valuable.

New Employees Wanted

Figures suggest that middle market firms might have real opportunities at this time to lure talent from competitors in order to fill their needs. When people feel optimistic about the overall job market, their willingness to change jobs increases, as well, and there is a wealth of statistics indicating that midsize firms are looking to take on more employees. A recent report by Plunkett Research, Ltd. on the state of the job market noted that, after all the downsizing between 2008 and 2010, "most employers then pushed productivity about as far as they could, to the point that significant future growth in business will now require a larger number of new employees," and middle market executives acknowledge this.

Midsize companies are backing up this perceived trend with some growth in employment numbers. The National Center for the Middle Market's latest MMI report found that the midmarket segment grew in employment at a rate of 2.5 percent during Q4 2013 and anticipates growth at 2.2 percent in 2014. Job seekers in the middle market are following suit. The Conference Board reported that the percentage of people who expected more jobs in the months ahead rose to 13.9 percent from 13.7 percent and those expecting fewer jobs fell to 18.0 percent from 20.9 percent.

On the flip side of this employment surge, middle market firms must be wary of losing their top-quartile talent to other firms also looking to poach skilled employees. One defense against this, and a tactic that generally delivers excellent return on investment, is to identify and prepare selected employees to step up to the next level of responsibility through enhanced training programs. When training results in internal promotions, a firm's hiring tasks become easier, as there will be more of a need to look outside the company for lower-level, rather than higher-level, positions.

The ability of a middle market company to push through a price increase could also give executives the ability to offer higher wages to its top-quartile employees. The combination of training and increased compensation would go a long way toward dissuading solid employees from considering that it might be worth taking a chance at another organization.

How can midsize firms best balance retaining valuable employees and attracting new workers? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.