WASHINGTON -- The percentage of small-business owners planning to hire more workers rose last month to its highest level since 2007, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

The jump came as the group's overall small-business optimism index slipped 0.1 points to 94 in August from the previous month, and amid some other conflicting data on the state of the key economic sector.

The Small Business Economic Trends Survey, released Tuesday, also showed that sales were down and small businesses cut workers for the fourth straight month in August, with the average firm shedding 0.3 employees.

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But plans for new hiring over the next three months surged by 7 percentage points in August. The 16% of businesses anticipating expanded employment was the best since before the Great Recession began.

"If this reading is not a fluke, it signals a substantial resumption of hiring in the coming months," the NFIB report said. "Hopefully, the September survey will validate the August readings and
reports of actual hiring will turn positive."

NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg acknowledged that the August report contained "a rather perplexing set of statistics."

Although major job cutbacks have stopped, hiring by small businesses has not turned positive. Still, hiring plans increased, though NFIB said most of those jobs probably will be part-time.

A gauge of sales dropped by 17%, the second-largest decline since the NFIB began its monthly survey in 1986. Nearly a quarter of small-business owners said they sold less from June through August than they did in the previous three months, the worst reading since early 2010.

But the percentage of owners anticipating sales volume to increase over the next three months jumped to 15% in August, from 7% the previous month. That was the best level in more than five years.

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