SAN FRANCISCO - The Bay Area jobs picture is brightening with regional forecasts calling for a pickup in hiring and several CEOs saying they've already begun.

The numbers are heartening, but it's the decisions being made in Bay Area corporate boardrooms that lend credibility to the improving outlook.

"We're hiring pretty desperately," said Bill Nguyen, founder and president of Seven, a Redwood City, Calif., company that has openings for 20 engineers to help enhance its software linking cell phone users to their office email. "Things are starting to get tight again."

Rising confidence in young companies like Seven is also evident in the growing number of senior executives jumping to startups.

"You'll see a trend of senior managers moving into entrepreneurial ventures, not only for the career growth and financial rewards but also an element of the last three years wasn't great and not a lot of fun," said Michael Bealmear, a former Sybase executive vice president who said this week that he's joining software maker HyperRoll as CEO.

Regional forecasters also suggest the Bay Area employment levels have bottomed.

The Bay Area economy will add 17,000 jobs this year, a modest gain that stands in sharp contrast to the 62,000 jobs lost last year, according to Paul Fassinger, economist and director of research for the Association of Bay Area Governments. He sees the region adding 33,000 new jobs in 2005, which will just start to offset the 268,000 lost between the end of 2000 and the end of last year.

The Bay Area Council recently reported that the number of executives expected to boost hiring has more than tripled since last July. Of the 504 CEOs and senior executives participating in the confidential survey Jan. 6-23, one third said they intend to expand their work force in the next six months.

Among those hiring is Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich, who wants to bring on board more private bankers throughout the franchise in the months ahead. The San Francisco bank also plans to hire more than 400 bankers in Los Angeles, its largest market. The move in Southern California is its most aggressive hiring plan in recent memory and echoes a similar initiative in the Bay Area in which Wells hired 100 late last year.

"We're extremely confident given the number of businesses we talk to," said Lisa Stevens, the bank's San Francisco Bay regional president

Emerging growth investment banks in San Francisco have been hiring throughout the past year and many plan to continue hiring in the year ahead.

Merriman Curhan Ford & Co., for instance, doubled its staff over the past six months to 90 and expects to double employment again by year-end.

Even those working in advertising and public relations -- areas that tend to be first on the cost-cutting chopping block -- say they're seeing strong prospects for new business.

For example, Porter Novelli, a PR shop with 82 employees and offices in both San Francisco and San Jose, Calif. is looking to fill positions from entry level to senior posts.

"We hired six people in January and have eight openings we want to fill as soon as possible," said Kim Mesfin, vice president of human resources for the PR firm that hired 23 employees in all of 2003.

No one's predicting a return to the frothy days of the dot-com bubble. And even those jumping to startups are assessing the risks carefully.

"Candidates are doing their due-diligence six ways to Sunday," said John Wilson, president of J.C. Wilson Associates, a San Francisco executive recruiter. "They're doing the level of due-diligence typically done by venture capitalists."

Bealmear said he did thorough research on HyperRoll and its market before making the leap.

"People are starting to embrace risk, but it's mitigated risk," Bealmear said. "You don't want to jump into the deep end of the pool just because the gate is open."