CONOVER, N.C. - As record numbers of orders flow through Legacy Furniture Group's manufacturing plant, workers toil between towers of piled foam and incomplete end tables precariously stacked five pieces high.

With a 10 percent sales growth this year, Legacy has quickly forgotten the recession's low point in March, when weak order volumes forced the company to implement four-day work weeks.

In November alone, the company that specializes in furniture for the medical industry added a half-dozen employees to its staff of 35. These days, everyone is clocking overtime and the 40,000-square-foot factory is starting to feel awfully cramped.

Legacy's recent success highlights a trend: Counties with the heaviest reliance on manufacturing income are posting some of the biggest employment gains of the nation's early economic recovery. This is a big change from just half a year ago, when some economists worried that widespread layoffs by U.S. manufacturers might be part of an irreversible trend in that sector.

The Associated Press Economic Stress Index, a monthly analysis of the economic state of more than 3,100 U.S. counties, found that manufacturing counties have outperformed the national average since March. The Stress Index calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on a county's unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. The higher the number, the greater the county's level of economic stress.

The top 100 manufacturing counties with populations of more than 25,000 saw their Stress score drop slightly over the spring and summer quarters, largely due to improvements in the unemployment rate. By comparison, the national average of similar counties saw county Stress score increases of about 7 percent over the same time.