Yesterday, I wrote about how employment companies in general -- and Manpower (NYSE:MAN) in particular -- could be useful indicators of where the global economy is headed. In today's column, I want to refocus a little closer to home. Where better to start than with Spherion (NYSE:SFN)? It specializes in providing skilled employees to that "growth engine of the U.S. economy" -- small and medium-sized enterprises.

First, let's lay out the background for our story. In its own earnings report, Manpower -- which does 80% of its business abroad -- sketched out a picture of a U.S. economy somewhere between stagnation and decline. U.S.-sourced revenues declined 1.2% last quarter, and the firm predicted another 2% year-over-year decline in the current quarter. Office workers were in particularly low demand, while other industries were described as stable.

Compared to that report, the prose in Spherion's Q4 earnings news sounded positively ebullient. Although overall revenues were flat year over year, Spherion noted that: "Small and mid-sized customer growth rates remained in the mid-teens again in the fourth quarter and have increased this customer segment to 55% of [Spherion's] total revenue." Moreover, the firm saw "continuing momentum in this area." Sounds pretty optimistic for the economy, if you ask me.

Moreover, Spherion offered a bit more evidence to allay concerns that " outsourcing" is ruining America's tech industry. In fact, it observed that: "Revenue growth was strongest in information technology, both in temporary staffing and permanent placement" [emphasis added.]

Um, but what about Spherion itself?
Sorry -- I didn't mean to get entirely wrapped up in the big picture. Spherion's sales were flat for the quarter, and down 5% for the year. Profits from continuing operations, in contrast, grew 12% for the quarter, and 18% for the year (on a per-share basis.) Net profits per share were buoyed by earnings from discontinued operations, with the result that quarterly profits septupled, and full-year profits nearly quintupled. Because this was a one-time deal, don't get too used to that, but do feel free to do a happy dance today if you own shares.

To bring these two perspectives together, let's end with a bit of good news for Spherion itself, and for the economy as a whole. Spherion predicted that Q1 would see the firm booking $460 million to $475 million in revenues (perhaps a 2% increase, as contrasted to Manpower's expected 2% decrease). This suggests things are going well for Spherion, and in contrast with Manpower's dour report, it provides a pleasant "second opinion" on the economy's health.

For more details on Manpower's view of things, read:

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above.