WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. small businesses hired the most workers in nearly eight years in December, the latest sign of vigor in the labor market and the broader economy.
The National Federation of Independent Business said on Wednesday small business owners added an average of 0.24 workers per firm last month, the largest since February 2006.
"Job creation is slowly moving in a positive direction," the NFIB said in a statement.
Earlier on Wednesday, payrolls processor ADP said private employers added 238,000 new jobs in December. That was the most number of jobs in 13 months and compared to 229,000 positions in November.
The reports come ahead of the release on Friday of the government's comprehensive employment report for December, which is expected to show a slight drop in hiring.
Nonfarm payrolls are expected to have increased by 196,000 last month, according to a Reuters survey of economists, after rising 203,000 in November. The unemployment rate is seen steady at a five-year low of 7.0 percent.
The NFIB survey of 635 of small business owners throughout the country found that 14 percent added an average of 3.4 workers per firm over the past few months.
About 10 percent of businesses reported laying off an average of 1.8 workers. The remaining 76 percent of owners made no net change in employment.
Small businesses are also increasingly reporting difficulties finding qualified people to fill open positions.
"The ability to find qualified applicants for available jobs continues to plague the small-business community," the NFIB said. "Forty-eight percent of owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 38 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions."
It said just under a quarter of owners had job openings they could not fill, the highest reading since January 2008.
Fourteen percent reported using temporary workers, up one point from November.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Stephen Powell)