UPDATE 2-PageGroup confident on outlook after March hiring boost

* Q1 gross profit up 2%; March up 31%

* Sees 2021 operating profit between 90-100 mln stg

* Shares hit more than 15-month high (Recasts, adds comments, details from report)

April 9 (Reuters) - A hiring surge last month has given recruiter PageGroup confidence on its financial outlook for the year, sending its shares up sharply, but the company also warned of uncertainty due to the latest coronavirus infections in some countries.

The owner of Michael Page and Page Personnel brands on Friday forecast annual operating profit to come in ahead of last year but still below 2019 levels. Its shares rose 8.8% in early trade. They touched their highest level since December 2019 at one stage.

Chief Executive Officer Steve Ingham said a noticeable improvement in March was seen throughout the group and was achieved despite the backdrop of continued and increasing restrictions or lockdowns in many markets.

“At this stage of the recovery, it is not easy to determine whether the improved performance is the result of pent-up supply and demand, or the beginning of a sustainable trend,” Ingham said.

A hiring freeze during the coronavirus shutdowns took a heavy toll on recruiters last year, but a ramp-up in vaccination programmes and re-opening of economies have encouraged many companies to resume recruiting.

PageGroup, which operates in 37 countries, now expects annual operating profit to be in the range of 90 million pounds ($123.38 million) to 100 million pounds, compared with 17 million pounds last year and 146.7 million pounds in 2019.

The recruiter posted a 2% rise in its first-quarter gross profit, helped by a 31% growth in March alone.

The UK job market has started to rebound as the country plans to ease national lockdown measures over the next few months, with an IHS Markit report here on Thursday pointing to the sharpest rise in permanent placements in March for nearly six years.

PageGroup’s first-quarter profit in Britain declined 11% year-on-year but this compared with a 34.2% slump in the fourth-quarter of 2020.

The company added 122 recruitment staff or “fee earners” in the quarter, it said, but total headcount is still down 12.6% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

The British company, which helps to hire executives, professionals and clerical staff, had suspended financial forecasts last year.

$1 = 0.7294 pounds Reporting by Indranil Sarkar in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V and Jane Merriman