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Glum and Glummer

The National Federation of Independent Business' latest survey of small-business employment trends doesn't make cheerful reading. Over the first three months of 2002, while 11% of the 555 business owners surveyed reported taking on additional workers, some 16% laid off an average of three employees apiece.

Nor does the survey hold much hope of any short-term improvement. In 2000, an earlier survey found that some 35% of business owners had at least one "hard to fill vacancy". In the latest survey, that figure has slipped to 18%, a two-point drop on the previous quarter. Same thing with respondents' intentions to hire additional help, with just 1% saying they were likely to be recruiting anytime soon. Not only does this represent a 5% drop on the previous survey, it is the lowest figure since the 1991 recession.

When will hiring -- and the economy -- improve? Don't hold your breath, advises the NFIB, which notes in its summary of the survey results: "The economy is growing so slowly that, with productivity gains, even current levels of employment are excessive." If events bear out that dour appraisal, there could be news of additional empty desks and work stations in the next survey. By Alison Ogden in New York

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