With many predicting a recovery for the U.S. economy next year, IT professionals are already looking forward to 2010. They hope the New Year will bring greater job security, renewed career opportunities, a resumption of annual raises and bonuses, and the restoration of any recession-induced pay and benefit cuts.

Happy PeopleOf course, opinions about the economy's direction are as numerous as press releases predicting the economy's direction. But a survey of 175 large employers conducted by global HR consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide shows an increase in the number of employers planning to reverse salary cuts and freezes and restore 401K matches, when compared to just two months ago. While the survey reflects projected changes that have yet to be enacted, the changing sentiment is based upon anticipated improvement in the economy and the growing concern, at least among large employers, that employees will begin defecting once the economy improves. Other survey data suggests most employers plan to offer workers raises in base salary during 2010, although the increases may be smaller than those in previous years.

Here's a summary of the key points contained in the Watson Wyatt press release:

The survey found that 33 percent of employers that froze salaries plan to unfreeze them within the next six months, up from 17 percent two months ago. Forty-four percent plan to roll back salary cuts in the next six months, compared with 30 percent two months ago. Additionally, 24 percent of employers plan to reverse reductions to 401K  match contributions in the next six months, versus 5 percent in June.

The survey found that 66 percent of respondents that increased the percentage that employees pay for health care premiums do not expect to reverse that decision. Also, 40 percent of respondents are planning to shift more health care benefit costs to workers by increasing the percentage of premiums they pay. Another 41 percent of companies expect to increase the deductibles, co-pays or out-of-pocket maximums for their 2010 health care plans.

In addition, a majority of employers (52 percent) are now more concerned about retaining their top performers and critical-skill employees than they were before the economic crisis hit. In an effort to keep employees engaged, 83 percent of employers have increased communication and 40 percent have held additional employee forums such as town halls or other interactive sessions to address economy-related concerns. While almost half (47 percent) have changed employee roles to expand responsibilities, a far smaller number is expanding the use of recognition programs (27 percent) or creating special compensation programs for high-performing or at-risk employees (18 percent).

Although the survey didn't include data from mid-size or small employers, those firms are subject to the same market conditions as large companies, making it likely they'll follow suit.

Here's hoping, on all counts. 

-- Leslie Stevens-Huffman