Small businesses accelerate hiring, help drive unemployment down to four-year low

Slowly but surely, small businesses are starting to accelerate their pace of hiring, helping drive down the overall unemployment rate to a four-year low last month.

Small business owners increased employment by an average of 0.14 workers per company in April, according to the latest report from the National Federation of Independent Business. That’s still slow growth by historic standards, but it marks the fifth consecutive month of gains after a topsy turvy year in 2012.

During the month, roughly the same number of employers (13 percent) cut jobs and added jobs, though collectively, the latter group added more positions that the downsizers lost—thus the slight overall increase in small business employment.

Related: Do small businesses actually create jobs?

Their contributions mirror the slow but increasingly consistent progress of the broader economic recovery, as the country added 165,000 jobs in April, according to the Labor Department, which also boosted its previous estimates for February and March. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent, too.

“April was another positive, albeit lackluster month for job creation,” NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg said in a statement. “But small-business owners are expressing a bit more enthusiasm in hiring plans in the months to come.”

Indeed, the group’s job creation reading showed major signs of improvement last month, as the number of business owners expecting to add jobs in the next three months jumped 3 percentage points to 18 percent and the number planning to trim their staffs dropped one point to only 4 percent.

A similar survey by Intuit showed similar trends, with small business employment jumping 0.11 percent as employers added about 20,000 new jobs. Compared to last year, that’s 0.9 percent growth. Some of the largest employment gains came from companies out west, with states like California, Idaho and Utah posting small business job growth of more than 0.15 percent in April.

“The West South Central census division, dominated by Texas, has been leading the recovery overall, reaching nearly the same level of employment as in mid-2008,” Susan Woodward, an economist who helped build the small business index, said in a statement.

However, the numbers were not all rosy. The Intuit survey showed that both small business wages and hours worked by employees dropped in April, suggesting employers may simply be finding other ways to trim their payrolls besides cutting workers.

Meanwhile, more than three out of four business owners with job openings reported finding few or no qualified applicants for those positions, according to the NFIB report— which may hinder some of the growth plans of those 18 percent of firms that plan to hire in the next three months.

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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