Job openings in the U.S. rose more than forecast in February to a six-year high as employers moved to boost hiring in response to rising consumer demand.
The number of positions waiting to be filled in the U.S. climbed by 299,000 to 4.17 million in February, the most since January 2008, from a revised 3.87 million the month before, the Labor Department reported today in Washington. The rate of hiring and the number of Americans quitting their jobs were little changed.
The figures, which are among nine labor-market barometers closely watched by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, reinforce other data showing steady improvement. Accelerated hiring would help provide bigger wage gains needed to boost consumer spending, which accounts for almost 70 percent of the economy.
“Everything is pointing to an improving labor market, which the Fed obviously wants to see,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto. “But they want to see much more improvement in the labor markets before they consider the economy is healthy again.”
The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for 4.02 million openings in February after a previously reported 3.97 million a month earlier.
The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, adds context to monthly payrolls data by measuring dynamics such as resignations, help-wanted ads and the pace of hiring. Although it lags other jobs data by a month, the figures are tracked by Yellen as a measure of labor-market tightness and worker confidence.
Companies added 192,000 workers in March after 188,000 jobs the month before, Labor Department figures showed last week. The gain brought the number of private jobs, which exclude government agencies, to 116.1 million, surpassing the previous peak set in January 2008 before the start of the last recession. Unemployment held at 6.7 percent even as almost half a million people entered the workforce.
Just two of the nine indicators on Yellen’s employment dashboard -- payroll growth and layoffs -- have returned to pre-recession levels, indicating Fed policy makers will probably keep reducing the pace of stimulus while keeping interest rates low.
Yellen highlighted those contradictions in a March 31 speech, saying that the recovery “still feels like a recession to many Americans.”
Some 2.38 million people quit their jobs in February, little changed from 2.37 million a month earlier, today’s report showed. The quits rate, which was 2 percent when the recession started at the end of 2007, held at 1.7 percent in February.
The hiring rate -- the number of people who got new jobs divided by the number who worked or were paid -- held at 3.3 percent in February. The rate compares with an average of 3.8 percent during the previous expansion. Hires rose to 4.59 million from 4.52 million, today’s report showed.
Employers in the retail and leisure and hospitality industries took on more workers in February. Construction and health care were among industries cutting back on new hires.
Job openings continued to mount at retailers in February, while professional and business service companies and restaurants also put out more help-wanted signs.
Tammy King, 50, is planning to take her talents into a new field. She is attending courses in advanced manufacturing near her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, after losing her position as a real-estate title examiner. The training program, funded by an employer collaborative called Partners for a Competitive Workforce, teaches skills that are in demand at nearby factories.
“In the manufacturing world, the jobs are there,” King said. “Once I can get my education done I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding one.”
In the meantime, her unemployment benefits have run out and she can’t find part-time work to pay the bills.
“There’s nothing,” King said. “You apply. You don’t hear back. You call. Nobody’s hiring.”
Today’s report showed about 2.5 people are vying for every opening, up from about 1.8 when the last recession began in December 2007.
Dismissals, which exclude retirements and people who quit voluntarily, fell to a three-month low of 1.62 million from 1.7 million in January.
In the 12 months that ended in February, employers added a net 2.1 million jobs, representing 54.3 million hires and 52.2 million separations.
Lowe’s Cos. is among those planning to add to headcount and seeking to improve worker productivity. The home-improvement retailer announced Feb. 19 that it will add about 25,000 seasonal employees this year for the industry’s busiest season.
Mooresville, North Carolina-based Lowe’s increased hours for its customer-service employees last year and is training and redeploying workers to improve sales, Chief Customer Officer Michael Jones said at a March 19 conference. Growth will be driven by improved productivity rather than store openings, he said.
“When you look at our fourth-quarter performance, you can see how, notwithstanding the fact that we’ve added labor to drive close rate, we’re able to flex that labor to protect our operating performance,” Jones said.
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