WASHINGTON — The employment outlook has improved to a 12-year high this quarter after sales strengthened and economic growth picked up, a survey showed.

The percentage of businesses expecting to increase payrolls in the next six months exceeded the share projecting more firings by 35 points, the most since the question was first asked in 1998, according to a survey by the National Association for Business Economics issued Monday in Washington. Sixty-two percent of respondents planned to boost spending on new equipment this year, up from 48 percent in the October survey.

“Things are headed in the right direction,” said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. “Topping everything is the high number of firms suggesting they will increase their head count in the future.”

The report adds to evidence, including a drop in claims for unemployment benefits, showing the job market is strengthening in early 2011. Payrolls rose by 103,000 workers in December, less than the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, and the unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent a month earlier, according to Labor Department figures released Jan. 7. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg this month forecast unemployment will average 9.3 percent this year.

Sales, which the report showed climbed in the last three months of 2010 for the sixth straight quarter, and higher profits are making businesses optimistic enough to consider expanding staff.

Forty-two percent of respondents said they anticipate an increase in hiring within the next six months, compared with 39 percent in the October survey. The share planning to trim payrolls fell to 7 percent from 11 percent last quarter.

A jump in payrolls “won’t happen overnight, and we’re probably several years from seeing the unemployment rate that we enjoyed prior to the downturn,” DuBravac said. “The fact that you see them thinking about hiring shows businesses are likely feeling comfortable with the recovery.”

Eight out of 10 respondents, the most since the October 2006 survey, projected the economy will expand from 2 percent to 4 percent in 2011. Last quarter, 54 percent said the economy would grow by that much. The median estimate of 71 economists surveyed by Bloomberg this month forecast a 3.1 percent growth rate for this year.