IBM Corp. (IBM) raised its estimate Thursday for the number of people it expects to hire in 2004 to 18,800, up from an earlier forecast of 15,000, citing strong growth in key business areas such as consulting, grid computing (search) and Linux (search).

One-third of the positions are in the United States, spokesman Edward Barbini said.

The total does not include jobs taken on through acquisitions or services deals in which other companies outsource labor to IBM, Barbini said. He said he could not provide details on how many jobs already have been added.

After attrition and other additions are factored in, the technology bellwether expects to have a work force of more than 330,000, its highest level since 1991, when the company employed 344,000 people. By 1994, amid systematic problems at Big Blue, the work force had fallen to 219,000.

IBM, like other big companies, has come under fire for shifting programming and other white-collar jobs to lower-cost countries in Asia. Recently, the company indicated that it would send 2,000 U.S. jobs offshore this year. However, that marked a decrease from earlier projections.

IBM shares fell $1.48 to close at $82.21 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange (search).