U.S. small business hiring was flat in January, a poll released on Friday showed, slightly better than the previous month's reading but still far from levels consistent with strong employment growth.
The National Federation of Independent Business survey of 2,155 firms also found an increase in the percentage of owners reporting hard-to-fill job openings. NFIB said this measure has been a good indicator of the U.S. unemployment rate, and suggests that there might have been a small decline in January.
The U.S. Labor Department is scheduled to release its January employment report later on Friday. Economists polled by Reuters thought it would show a 150,000 increase in nonfarm payrolls, with the unemployment rate holding steady at 8.5 percent.
In the NFIB survey, the net change in employment per firm was nil, on a seasonally adjusted basis. That was a slight improvement from December, when the number of workers fell by an average of 0.15 per firm.
The indicators are improving, but glacially, NFIB economist William Dunkelberg said in a statement.
NFIB said 11 percent of small business owners added jobs, but an equal percentage reduced employment. The remaining 78 percent made no net change.
The percentage of owners reporting hard-to-fill job openings rose to 18 percent, the highest in more than three years.
The net percent of owners planning to create new jobs fell 1 percentage point to 5 percent, seasonally adjusted, the third consecutive monthly decline.
(Reporting by Emily Kaiser in Singapore, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)