The hiring slump for small businesses might be coming to an end, even though business owners appear no more confident about the state of the U.S. economy.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses said its Small Business Optimism Index was down slightly in August, but just 0.1 points to 94.0.
But, while the headline number was essentially unchanged, the individual components making up that figure shifted dramatically. While business owners reported a relatively low number of job openings and many cut jobs, they nonetheless said they planned to increase their hiring.
Job-creation plans rose 7 points, with 16 percent of businesses surveyed saying they planned to increase total employment. That marks the highest level since before the recession in 2007. Also, just 9 percent reported using temporary help, down 6 points from July.
At the same time, though, businesses shed the largest number of employees than they had in recent months. Forty-seven percent of the owners surveyed said they hired or tried to hire in the last three months, but 36 percent said they saw few or no qualified applicants for their open positions.
Workers appeared to be making less, as well. Earnings trends fell 13 points to a negative 35 percent, the NFIB said.
There were also conflicting data points in prospects for sales. Sales expectations improved 8 points, the NFIB said, but the overall sales and profit picture at the companies surveyed fell sharply.
Even the NFIB itself wasn't sure what to make of the numbers.
"All of this is a rather perplexing set of statistics," the group said. "Internally consistent on some dimensions as lower sales bring lower profits, but contradictory in other ways with lower job openings but huge gains in hiring plans. The September survey will hopefully straighten this out."