Job openings were up 7.6 percent in January
WASHINGTON - Job openings rose sharply earlier this year, evidence that employers are slowly ramping up hiring as the economy improves.
The number of openings in January rose about 7.6 percent, to 2.7 million, compared with December, the Labor Department said. That’s the highest total since February 2009.
The report is a sign that the economy is soon likely to generate consistent job gains. Some economists expect employers to add up to a net 300,000 jobs in March. Hiring is critical to sustaining the economic recovery because job growth boosts incomes and helps restore the confidence needed to drive consumer spending. A gradual increase in net hiring would help prevent the recovery from fizzling.
There are now about 5.5 unemployed people, on average, competing for each opening. That’s still far more than the 1.7 people who were competing for each opening when the recession began. But it’s down from just over six people per opening in December 2009.
Economists were encouraged by the report but cautioned that hiring will probably increase only slowly this year.
The economy has lost 8.4 million jobs since the recession began. The jobless rate was unchanged last month at 9.7 percent. Most economists expect the rate to remain elevated for several years.
The transition to job growth “is an important step in the expansion,’’ Nigel Gault, chief US economist at IHS Global Insight, wrote in a note to clients. “It will not change the story that this will be a subdued recovery . . . but will reduce the odds of a relapse.’’
The gradually brightening jobs picture corresponds to what many job search websites are reporting. The Monster employment index, a measure of online postings by Monster.com, rose 2 percent in February compared with the previous year. That was the first year-over-year increase since December 2007, when the recession began.
Indeed.com, which aggregates job listings from thousands of online career boards and individual company sites, is also seeing improvement. The company said last week that 10 of the 12 industries it tracks posted more job openings in February than they did a year ago.
The Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey illustrates the heavy job turnover that occurs even in a sluggish economy. Employers hired about 4.08 million people in January, the report said. At the same time, 4.12 million people were fired or left their jobs.
Job openings are down sharply from pre-recession levels. There were nearly 4.4 million available positions in December 2007, the government said, compared with the 2.7 million openings in January.
Most of the January job gains were concentrated in education and health care, the report said. Job openings in those industries rose 72,000, or 13 percent. Hotels and restaurants also saw gains, with an increase of 28,000 openings, or 13.5 percent.
Paul Forster, chief executive of Indeed.com, noted that job gains in the hospitality and retail industries signal growing confidence in the recovery, because those sectors depend on consumer spending.
Job openings in information technology are also rising. Scot Melland, chief executive of Dice Holdings, said postings on its Dice.com job board for IT professionals rose 7 percent as of March 1 from a year ago.