Small firms began creating jobs in February after years in which employment was shrinking, the National Federation of Independent Business said on Thursday in the latest sign of firming job markets.

Finally, in February, the number of net new jobs reported went decidedly positive, rising to 0.17 workers per firm, the first 'decent' reading since the second quarter of 2006, said federation president William Dunkelberg.

He said the number of firms reporting hard to fill job openings climbed two percentage points to 15 percent, adding to signs of a slowly strengthening job market.

The Labor Department is scheduled to release its report on national employment during February on Friday after reporting on Thursday that U.S. claims for jobless benefits fell last week to the lowest level in more than 2-1/2 years.

(Reporting by Glenn Somerville)