Job Openings in U.S. Decreased in August, Hiring Climbed

Job openings in the U.S. fell in August for the first time in four months, signaling a sustained labor market recovery will take time to unfold.

The number of positions waiting to be filled dropped by 157,000 to 3.06 million, according to Labor Department figures issued today in Washington. Hiring increased by 38,000 to 4.01 million.

Payrolls climbed by 103,000 workers in September, a better-than-forecast outcome that included 45,000 returning Verizon Communications Inc. strikers. With unemployment hovering above 9 percent, the economy slowing and concerns of a European default mounting, employers may be slow to further boost hiring.

“Companies don’t want to risk making additional hires with the outlook so uncertain,” Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York, said before the report. “Corporations are playing it very close to the vest and keeping payrolls lean.”

Job openings decreased 4.9 percent in August from a revised 3.21 million in July that were smaller than initially reported, the data showed. The drop in vacancies was led by trade, transportation and utilities.

Today’s report helps shed light on the dynamics behind the monthly employment figures. The gain in payrolls in September followed a revised 57,000 increase the prior month, Labor Department figures showed Oct. 7. August payrolls were previously reported as having been little changed.

Fewer Firings

Employers discharged 1.66 million workers in August, down from 1.69 million in July, the report also showed. Total separations, which include firings, retirements and those who left their jobs voluntarily, were little changed at 3.97 million.

In the 12 months ended in August, the economy created a net 1.2 million jobs, representing about 47.9 million hires and about 46.7 million separations, today’s report showed.

Compared with the 14 million Americans who were unemployed in August, today’s figures indicate there were more than four people vying for every opening, up from about two when the last recession began in December 2007.

The number of jobless was little changed at 14 million in September, keeping the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent for a third straight month, the Labor Department reported last week.

Shares Retreat

Debate in Washington over the budget and mounting fear of a default in Europe caused the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to plummet 16 percent from July 22 to Aug. 22, making companies and consumers more pessimistic. The lack of hiring is one reason why Federal Reserve policy makers last month announced more unconventional measures to stimulate growth.

“Economic growth remains slow,” Fed policy makers said Sept. 21 as they announced a plan to bring down longer-term lending rates. While officials said they “expect some pickup in the pace of recovery over coming quarters,” they anticipate “the unemployment rate will decline only gradually.”

President Barack Obama last month proposed a $447 billion jobs plan that economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast would help avoid a return to recession by maintaining growth and pushing down the unemployment rate next year. Last night, the plan failed to draw the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance the measure, prompting Obama to vow to press ahead for passage of individual provisions of his program.

Citigroup Inc., the third-biggest U.S. bank, is among firms that have turned more cautious about hiring. It said last month it will limit hiring to only “critical” jobs as the economic slowdown continues and revenue slumps.

“We are currently only filling positions we believe are critical to the line of business or function,” Shannon Bell, a spokeswoman for the New York-based bank, said in an interview Sept. 15.

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