U.S. companies in March posted the highest number of job openings in nearly four years, a sign that hiring could strengthen after slowing this spring.
The Labor Department said today that employers advertised 3.74 million job openings in March. That’s up from a revised 3.57 million in February. The March figure was the highest since July 2008, just before the financial crisis erupted.
The increase in job openings suggests that weaker hiring gains in March and April could be temporary. It usually takes one to three months for employers to fill openings.
Even with the increase, roughly 12.7 million people were unemployed in March. That means an average of 3.4 people competed for each open job. While that’s far better than the nearly 7-to-1 ratio when the recession ended, in a healthy job market, the ratio is around 2 to 1.
Last week the government said employers added just 115,000 jobs in April and 154,000 in March. That was a sharp decline from December through February, when the economy added an average of 252,000 jobs per month.
Some of the slowdown in job growth in March and April may reflect a payback for unusually warm winter. The warmer weather probably exaggerated job growth in the winter months and is now making spring gains look smaller.
Today’s report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTs, also showed that more people quit their jobs in March. More people quitting is a good sign because most people quit to move to a new job. The rising number of people quitting suggests workers are finding more opportunities in the job market.
Nearly 4.36 million people were hired in March, slightly fewer than in February. The JOLTs report measures gross job gains, while the monthly jobs reports are net figures calculated after subtracting layoffs and the number who quit.
The unemployment rate has fallen a full percentage point since August to 8.1% last month — lowest level since January 2009.
Still, 8.1% unemployment is painfully high. And part of the reason for the decline is more people gave up looking for work. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren’t counted as unemployed.
The employment report on Friday showed the average worker’s hourly pay rose just one penny in April. Over the past year, average hourly pay has ticked up 1.8% to $23.28. Inflation has been roughly 2.7%, which means the average consumer isn’t keeping up with price increases.