GARDNER -- The outlook for hiring trends in North Central Massachusetts in 2013 was rated as "fair to good" by a majority of employers who participated in a recent business trends survey conducted by four area Chambers of Commerce and Mount Wachusett Community College's business department.

The online, confidential survey, conducted Nov. 1 through Nov. 23, targeted the owners, presidents and vice presidents that lead local firms and featured four key components: staffing, organizational culture, change management, and marketing. The survey was distributed to members of the Greater Gardner Chamber of Commerce, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce and the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with Dr. Michael T. Greenwood, chairman of the business department at MWCC.

The MWCC School of Business and Chamber of Commerce Executive Survey of Business Trends was distributed to more than 1,000 chamber members, with 267 business leaders responding, including 82 percent who identified their organization as a business and 18 percent as a nonprofit organization. After analyzing the results, Greenwood reported that 51 percent of the businesses plan to hire new employees in the next year, for a potential total of 279 full-time and 374 part-time jobs. Most of the growth is anticipated in larger organizations.

Retail trade, at 14.5 percent, was the highest business sector participating, followed by manufacturing (13.3 percent), healthcare (9.6 percent), accounting and consulting (each 7.8 percent). Other sectors participating in the survey included education, banking, construction, real estate, telecommunications, government, hospitality, food service, insurance, financial services and manufacturing. Sixty-five percent of the respondents reported having 10 or fewer employees, and 18 percent of the respondents represented organizations that employ 50 or more.

Overall, businesses forecasted that they are cautiously optimistic about the economy in the coming year, with larger businesses indicating a greater level of optimism than smaller businesses, Greenwood said. Finding new customers was rated as the greatest challenge and customer relationships and quality are considered the most important method firms use to create competitive advantage in the marketplace. The organizations' website was rated the most valued and important method for communicating with customers, followed by direct sales, online Web marketing, social media and special events.

Among the survey's other findings, employers considered a strong work ethic, strong interpersonal and communications skills, the ability to work as a team and problem solving as the most desirable traits in new employees. A business degree was deemed most in demand by nearly 35 percent of the employers. Liberal arts and engineering degrees tied for second place, with nearly 14 percent each.

"This study provides an informative and useful snapshot of how our businesses view the local economic situation," said Jim Bellina, president and CEO of the Greater Gardner Chamber of Commerce. "Using it as a baseline for trending with future studies should prove even more valuable, especially for those businesses interested in opening or expanding in our area. It is also an excellent example of the synergy between Mount Wachusett Community College and the business community."

"The survey results reflect a guarded optimism among a small majority of executives that 2013 will present opportunities for growth and new hiring," said Melissa Fetterhoff, president and CEO of the Nashoba Valley Chamber. While they see the glass as half full, it's important to remember nearly half the businesses surveyed see the glass as half empty. There is much work still to be done to improve the business and tax climate so a greater majority of the region's businesses feel confident in the future and expand and hire."

The survey, anticipated to become an annual gauge on trends in the region, is intended to track social marketing trends, local jobs forecast, new employee skills in demand, top college degrees in demand, organizational culture, employee benefits and organizational change management. The results are intended to help all business in the region better predict hiring and business growth plans for the region.

These trends, according to Greenwood, will start to shape a shared understanding of local business growth in the region, and will enhance state and national statistics that may not fully reflect the local climate.