The NFIB and ADP reports show different hiring trends last month on Main Street. (Ty Wright/Bloomberg)

Heading into the holiday shopping season, small business owners have been anything but optimistic about consumer their sales forecasts, and many remain concerned about ongoing instability in Washington.

It would come as little surprise, therefore, if they weren’t rushing to hire additional people right now. However, it isn’t clear whether that’s actually happening.

On one hand, the National Federation of Independent Business reports that small businesses added an average of merely 0.05 workers per company in November, half the pace at which they were hiring in October and well below historical norms. Only one in seven small firms added workers during the month, while one in eight cut back on their payroll.

During the month of November in 2012, hiring was nearly flat, too, with slightly more firms cutting jobs than adding them (employment dropped 0.04 workers per company).

So while the change was at least positive last month, Bill Dunkelberg, NFIB’s top economist, says it’s “not a lot of progress for this far into a recovery.” He warns that the weak hiring reports will likely continue until officials take steps to alleviate concerns about rising health costs, energy costs and regulatory burdens.

“Owners will continue to be very cautious, operating in maintenance mode until the future for the economy becomes clearer,” Dunkelberg wrote in the report.

On the other hand, a second jobs report by payroll company ADP paints a very different picture on Main Street.

In its small-business index released this week, the company reported that firms with fewer than 50 workers added 102,000 jobs in November, nearly triple the pace of October, when they added only 37,000, and five times the job gains posted by small businesses last November (19,000). It was the largest gain since January.

The vast majority of those jobs (around 91,000) were created by services firms. By comparison, small firms that produce and sell goods added only 11,000 jobs in November.

“The job market remained surprisingly resilient to the government shutdown and brinkmanship over the treasury debt limit,” Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement about the ADP findings. “If anything, job growth appears to be picking up.”

So, two reports, two starkly different readings. What gives?

It’s important to note that, in terms of size, the NFIB’s index covers a broader range of companies, compared to ADP’s small-business cutoff of 50 employees. In fact, the NFIB’s survey does not have a size limit, but NFIB says that the overwhelming majority of respondents are small firms.

Keeping that in mind, a closer look at the ADP survey shows that slightly larger firms, those with between 50 and 500 workers, added a much more modest 47,000 jobs last month.

Ones in the next size group, those with more than 500 but less than 1000 employees, actually shed 5,000 positions in November — and some firms in those size groups may be funnelling into data collected by the NFIB, thus driving down the overall job gains.

Share your thoughts: Do you think it’s a good time to be hiring right now?

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