Job openings rose 2.5 per cent to nearly 5 million, the most since January 2001, the Labor Department said Tuesday. The number of people who quit their jobs increased 3 per cent to 2.8 million, the most in more than six years.
More quits are generally a sign of confidence in the economy, because people typically leave their jobs when they either have another one lined up, often at higher pay, or are optimistic that they can find a new position.
Increased openings are usually followed by stronger job gains. Steady economic growth, powered largely by consumer spending, has boosted businesses' confidence in the economy and made them more willing to hire.
The figures follow another strong monthly jobs report released Friday. Employers added 295,000 jobs in February, extending a robust streak of hiring that began last year. The number of Americans earning paychecks has jumped nearly 3.3 million in the past year, the best 12-month gain since March 2000.
That gain has helped to sharply lower the U.S. unemployment rate to 5.5 per cent from 6.7 per cent a year ago.
The figures that were reported Friday are a net figure: Jobs gained minus jobs lost. The data being reported Tuesday are more detailed. They calculate total hires, as well as quits and layoffs.
Tuesday's report also includes revisions to the previous five years of data. Job openings in December were revised down sharply from more than 5 million to 4.88 million.
Total hiring actually slowed in January, to fewer than 5 million after reaching 5.2 million, a seven-year high, in December. The number of layoffs also fell that month.
"The slower recovery in hiring suggests employers are taking their time filling openings or are having a hard time finding qualified candidates," Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo, said in a note to clients.
Those difficulties could prompt employers to offer higher pay to fill some positions, economists say. There were, on average, 1.8 unemployed workers for every open job in January. That is typical of a healthy economy and is down from a record high of 6.7 in July 2009, just after the recession ended.
Yet so far, the improving job market has yet to lift wages much. Average hourly pay rose just 2 per cent in the 12 months that ended in February, down from a 2.2 per cent year-over-year pay increase in January.
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