U.S. healthcare industry executives are expected to be the most sought-after in the new year, according to a monthly survey of executive search professionals released on Monday.

Healthcare likely will lead the demand for senior-level staff in the first quarter, followed by clean technology, life sciences, high technology and the energy and utilities industry, according to the survey by ExecuNet, a private network for business leaders.

The report also said that more executive recruiters think the executive employment market will improve. Fifty-four percent expect the market to get better in the next six months, up from 50 percent who said so a month ago,

A reading above 50 indicates increasing recruitment activity. ExecuNet's index has been at 50 or higher for the past four months, after spending much of 2008 and 2009 below the 50 mark, reflecting shrinking demand.

Executives who work in business development, sales and engineering, as well as operations management, face the brightest prospects in the new year, according to the survey.

Recruiters also predicted increased demand for their services in 2010.

Executive search firms predict a 19 percent increase in assignments received from corporate clients, the highest since early 2008, the survey of 153 recruiters found.