Job openings increased 3.2 per cent to 4.83 million, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That's just below August's total, which was the highest on records dating back to 2000. Total hiring slipped 0.4 per cent to 5.1 million after reaching a seven-year high in September. The number of people quitting was mostly unchanged at a six-year high of 2.7 million.
The overall figures paint a picture of a more dynamic job market, with businesses filling more open jobs and more Americans quitting, typically for better-paying opportunities. More quits and more job postings provide more opportunities for the unemployed to find work.
Job openings have been rising strongly all year, but total hiring has only picked up in the past couple of months. That suggests employers are stepping up their efforts to fill open positions. The number of available jobs has increased 21 per cent in the past 12 months, while hiring is up 12 per cent. That gap has narrowed significantly this year.
More people quitting and growth in hiring can also help up drive up wages, which have barely kept up with inflation since the recession ended.
The data comes after last Friday's surprisingly strong jobs report. Employers added a net total of 321,000 jobs in November, the most in nearly three years. Job gains have averaged 241,000 jobs a month this year, the healthiest pace in 15 years.
Still, the job market is not yet back to full health. There are still nearly 7 million people working part-time jobs who would prefer full-time work, up from 4.1 million before the Great Recession.
Tuesday's data is from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, which provides a more detailed look at the job market than the monthly employment report. It includes figures for overall hiring, as well as the number of quits and layoffs. The monthly jobs figures are a net total of job gains or losses.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has cited the levels of quits and hires as key indicators of job market health. She and other Fed officials are monitoring those trends as they consider when to raise short-term interest rates from near-zero levels. Most economists forecast that won't happen until the middle of next year.
Surveys by trade groups and staffing firms also point to solid job gains. Small business owners are much more optimistic about future economic growth, and most expect sales to increase in the coming months, according to a survey released Tuesday by the National Federation of Independent Business.
The NFIB's optimism index rose in November to its highest level since February 2007, 10 months before the recession began. A measure of small businesses' plans to hire ticked up to the highest level since July.
Paul Dales, an economist at forecasting firm Capital Economics, said the job openings data and the small business survey suggest employers will continue to add at least 250,000 jobs a month. That rate of job growth should also push up wages, he added.
Separately, staffing agency Manpower says its seasonally adjusted employment index rose to 16 in the first quarter of 2015, a point higher than its fourth quarter reading and the best showing since 2008. Manpower's index is based on interviews with 18,000 U.S. companies.
Nearly all the gain in the government's job openings report occurred in construction and hotels and restaurants. Openings fell in retail, government and professional and business services, which include engineering, accounting and other high-paying jobs.
Hiring surged among retailers, likely in preparation for the holiday shopping season.