An index measuring the optimism of small business owners jumped 2.7 points, to 91.7—“not a huge move, but at least a decent jump,” according to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) on Tuesday, whose Index of Small Business Optimism has finally started to turn around.

According to Chief U.S. Economist Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics, the index was only expected to hit 90 by economists; this five-month high is good news. “We have long argued that a proper recovery in the broad economy,” said Shepherdson in an analyst note, “requires a sustained improvement in the small firm sector, which employs half the workforce.”

While the NFIB cautions that the index is “still in recession territory,” several indicators are showing marked improvement, most notably average employment growth per firm, which in October rose to 0. Not much, you say? That zero is “one of the best performances in years,” according to the study. Reaching that level, says the study, “raises the odds that Main Street may contribute to private sector job growth for the first time in over a year.” A seasonally adjusted 10% still have unfilled job openings; this is down one point and in weak territory historically.

The number of small businesses planning to hire in the next three months is unchanged at 8%, but those planning to lay off are down by 3 points to 13%—a marked improvement that results in a seasonally adjusted net 1% of owners who plan to create new jobs. That’s a four-point jump from September’s figures.

Capital spending has shown some gains as well, with 47% having done some spending over the past six months; however, the atmosphere for such expenditures is still not great, and that’s reflected in the one-point drop to 18% of owners planning future outlays.

Sales are up to a net negative 13%, 20 points higher than in May of 2009 and four points up from September. Owners expecting real sales rose to a net 1%, seasonally adjusted, even though they are still cutting inventories (down 2% from September to a net negative 16% reporting gains in inventories).

Borrowing is up, with 91% indicating either that they’re not interested in borrowing or they have access to the credit they need. Those borrowing on a regular basis are 31%, a near-record low. And those who do want loans need cash flow support, not a push to grow or take on more employees.

Shepherdson said, “The sector has been hugely constrained by the contraction in bank credit . . . but that now seems to be coming to an end.” As credit becomes easier to get, Shepherdson says, hiring and capital expenditures should rise. He concludes, “This looks to us like the start of a serious improvement.”