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Related topics: jobs, Apple, Comcast, Lockheed Martin, Michael Brush

Just about every week, we hear the depressing news that unemployment remains high because few jobs have been created, a trend that seems to suggest stocks are no place to be because growth will remain weak.

But the big-picture numbers disguise the truth: Many companies are on hiring binges. In this economy, that's a great indicator for investors.

While business profits overall are at record levels, many companies have focused on cutting back and hunkering down. Companies' decisions to hire represent confidence that not only are their bottom lines strong but that their businesses will keep growing. They're not just playing defense.

To me, this means that buying the stocks of companies on hiring binges, such as Apple (AAPL, news), AT&T (T, news) and Comcast (CMCSA, news), makes sense even when those stocks have been going up. Hiring trends also support contrarian buys of defense stocks like Lockheed Martin (LMT, news) and General Dynamics (GD, news), which have declined amid uncertainty about defense budget cuts.

So who's hiring?

Image: Michael Brush

Michael Brush

To find out which companies are doing the most hiring, I asked for help from Indeed.com, a search engine for jobs. Its algorithms normally help job seekers find openings. Indeed.com turned its "algos" loose on the Internet and its own databases to find which companies have the most job postings online right now and over the past three and six months.

Hiring is strongest in three areas: retail, health care and technology. I'm excluding retailers such as J.C. Penney (JCP, news) and McDonald's (MCD, news) from my list of possible investments based on hiring trends, for a simple reason: Because turnover is higher on sales floors and at cash registers, these companies are probably always hiring.

In health care, the companies doing the most hiring are names like Kaiser Permanente and HCA -- private businesses we can't invest in. They're off our list, too.

That leaves us with five plays, all in technology, so often the sector that produces growth when everything else looks bleak. Another common factor that ties these five companies together: healthy cash flow. This is a sign that they have good track records and are doing the right thing when taking on the cost of hiring employees. It also means they can hire additional workers without going further into debt to do so.

Here are the names:

Apple

It's not hard to figure out why Apple comes up high on the list of companies with the most job postings online right now, with 4,500 ads as of last week, according to Indeed.com. Last quarter, for the first quarter ever, the company posted more than $20 billion in revenue as a record 14.1 million iPhones were sold worldwide, a 91% increase over the year-ago quarter.

Other products are doing great as well, aided by a "halo effect"; people like iPhones so they buy other Apple products. Mac computer sales were up 27%, or more than twice the growth in PC sales, and Apple sold 4.2 million iPads. "This is a company on a major growth trajectory," says Andrew Corn, the chief investment officer of E5A Funds in New York. "It is still my largest position."

Apple's current aggressive search for more employees tells us the company has confidence these trends will continue. This is believable because Apple is expanding distribution into Wal-Mart Stores (WMT, news), Target (TGT, news) and Verizon Communications (VZ, news). Plus more and more companies are offering iPads and iPhones to employees. And while most U.S. cell phone users now have smart phones, in many places abroad this upgrade is still in the early stages. The demand for iPhones "in all countries is absolutely staggering," says Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook.

Barclays analyst Ben Reitzes also cites what he calls the "FaceTime networking effect." This means that as Apple's FaceTime video conferencing app spreads to more Apple devices from the iPhone 4 and the iPod Touch, more people will want Apple products so they can make video phone calls.

Apple is probably also hiring to build out its cloud computing, so it can sell notebooks with smaller hard drives and let consumers store data such as iTunes libraries on servers accessed via the Internet.

"The company has been actively building an expensive data center in North Carolina, perhaps to enhance iTunes in this way," says Reitzes. He has a $390 price target on the stock, which recently sold for $310, up 55% in the past year.

AT & T

As the exclusive iPhone vendor in the U.S., AT & T is riding the same trends as Apple. The phone company activated a record 5.2 million iPhones in the third quarter, of which 1.2 million went to new customers. AT & T recently added iPads to its lineup of Apple offerings.

"That is going to make a big difference," says Jim Hardesty of Hardesty Capital Management in Baltimore.

Plus, consumers have been signing up for the company's U-verse TV service at a rapid pace. The number of subscribers increased 50% in the past quarter, compared with a year earlier, to 2.7 million. All of this -- plus plans to roll out a faster fourth-generation wireless network next year -- means AT & T has to invest heavily in its networks to add capacity, which explains why the company ranks high on the list of companies looking for employees.

"The hiring is part of the infrastructure buildout," says Alan Lancz of Alan B. Lancz & Associates, a money management company. AT & T will probably shell out $19 billion in capital spending this year, including a 55% year-over-year increase in wireless-related spending. AT & T had 8,300 job postings online last week, according to Indeed.com.