Small employers ramped up employment last month at the fastest rate in more than a year, but the outlook for the near future remains bleak, according to new data from the National Federation of Independent Business.

The group’s latest economic survey shows that more small businesses reduced employment (13 percent) than increased employment (10 percent) in March. However, business owners who are hiring added an average of 3.1 workers during the month, whereas their counterparts only decreased employment at a rate of 2.1 employees per firm. Consequently, small companies collectively added an average of 0.22 workers, the highest rate of growth since the first couple months of 2011.

More than three out of four small firms neither added nor subtracted from their payrolls, according to the survey, which is based on the responses of 757 randomly sampled members of the trade group.

“March came in like a lion on the job-front, but went out tempered by future job growth indicators,” NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg said in a statement. “Overall, the March survey anticipates some strength in the job creation number with little change in the unemployment rate.”

Recent improvements in the overall job market slowed in March as employers expanded payrolls by a mere 120,000 jobs, marking the first time since November the number ticked up by fewer than 200,000 jobs, according to data published by the Labor Department on Friday. As a result, the national unemployment rate fell by only the smallest of margins from 8.3 percent to 8.2 percent.

Holding back the increases in employment is a crippling lack of qualified applicants for positions currently available at small businesses, Dunkelberg said. Recently published NFIB research shows that 44 percent of business owners hired or tried to hire in the last three month, and of those, 76 percent reported finding few or no qualified applicants.

More specifically, roughly one out of four small employers reported applicants typically did not have the required skills for the open position and nearly the same number cited applicants’ poor work histories. Meanwhile, one out of five said prospective employees had inflated wage expectations.

On the bright side, the number of firings seems to be slowing. On Thursday, Labor Department data showed that new applications for unemployment benefits dipped to 357,000, marking a new four-year low. The four-week average, considered a less volatile and often more telling measure, fell to 361,750, also the lowest since 2008.

But that’s yet to be accompanied by a lift in employers’ plans to create jobs, as March marked the fourth straight month of decline in the number of owners planning to create new jobs. The latest net reading of 0 was down 4 points from the previous month and down 7 points from the reading in November.

“With job openings and plans for job creation both falling, prospects for a surge in job creation in the small business sector are still not promising,” Dunkelberg said.

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .