Job openings in the U.S. increased in February and hiring climbed to the highest level in more than three years, signaling employers turned more optimistic about the economic outlook.
The number of positions waiting to be filled totaled 3.5 million in February, up from a revised 3.48 million the prior month that was higher than previously estimated, the Labor Department said today in a statement posted on its website. More people were added to private payrolls than at any time since October 2008, while the pace of firings was little changed, the report showed.
Better employment prospects may mean the setback in hiring in March will be short-lived, helping restore some of the 5 million jobs yet to be recovered in the aftermath of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009. The pickup in the labor market may ease concerns raised by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke last month that much of the improvement stems from fewer firings instead of new additions.
“There is a pretty strong, solid uptrend in job openings,” said Michael Gapen, a senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital in New York. “The labor market is gradually getting better when you continue to look across a broad swath of indicators.”
Landry’s Inc., which owns more than 400 restaurants, hotels and casinos, can’t find enough workers, Chief Executive Officer Tilman J. Fertitta said during an interview at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York on April 4. The closely held company is looking for about 40 employees for its corporate office in Houston and thousands to fill roles at its U.S. properties, he said.
“Business is good,” he said. “The consumer is spending money.” The company is having trouble finding workers “at all levels,” Fertitta said.
Another report showed confidence among small businesses dropped in March for the first time in seven months as companies grew concerned about the outlook for sales and tempered plans to take on additional employees.
The National Federation of Independent Business’s optimism index declined to 92.5 from a one-year high of 94.3 in February, the Washington-based group said in a statement. Nine of the measure’s 10 components fell.
Stocks fell, extending the longest slump for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index since November, as bond yields in Spain continued to surge and concern grew that growth in U.S. corporate earnings has stalled. The S&P 500 dropped for a fifth straight day, losing 1.7 percent to 1,358.59 at the close in New York.
Elsewhere, French business confidence stagnated and factory production dropped, underlining the challenges faced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in his bid for re-election. China reported an unexpected trade surplus for March as imports trailed estimates, indicating domestic demand may be slowing.
The number of people hired rose to 4.39 million in February, today’s U.S. job openings report showed. Excluding government agencies, those finding new jobs climbed to 4.08 million, the most since a month after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in September 2008.
The hiring rate increased to 3.3 percent, the report showed, the first increase since August and the fastest pace since March 2011.
Total firings, which exclude retirements and those who left their jobs voluntarily, decreased by 11,000 to 1.67 million, today’s report showed, leaving the rate little changed at 1.3 percent.
About 2.09 million people quit their jobs in February, up from 2 million in January and the most since November 2008. The increase may signal workers are gaining confidence they can find other jobs as the economy improves.
“A higher volume of quits leads to a higher number of hiring” as companies need to replace workers, said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “The quit rate is usually a sign that people are finding better jobs. This is an important component of any self-sustaining expansion.”
The increase in job openings was paced by retailers, followed by health care and social assistance. Government agencies also put up more help-wanted signs.
“In any given month, a large number of workers are being hired or are leaving their current jobs, illustrating the dynamism of the U.S. labor market,” Bernanke said in a March 26 speech. “The recent history of these flows suggests that further improvement in the labor market will likely need to come from a shift to a more robust pace of hiring.”
Payrolls rose in March by a five-month low of 120,000 after a 240,000 gain the prior month, Labor Department figures showed on April 6. The jobless rate fell to 8.2 percent in March, a three-year low, as the labor force shrank by 164,000.
In the 12 months ended February, the economy created a net 2 million jobs, representing about 50.6 million hires, compared with about 48.6 million separations.
Considering the 12.8 million Americans who were unemployed in February, today’s figures indicate there were about 3.7 people vying for every opening, compared with about 1.8 when the recession began in December 2007.
“The declines in aggregate payrolls during the recession stemmed from both a reduction in hiring and a large increase in layoffs,” Bernanke said in last month’s speech. “In contrast, the increase in employment since the end of 2009 has been due to a significant decline in layoffs but only a moderate improvement in hiring.”