WASHINGTON — U.S employers have more job openings than at any other time in nearly five years. Yet they seem in no hurry to fill them.
That disparity helps explain why the job market remains tight and unemployment high. Even as openings have surged 11 percent in the past year, the number of people hired has declined.
Why so many openings yet so few hires?
Economists point to several factors: Some unemployed workers lack the skills employers want. Some companies may not be offering enough pay. And staffing firms say that in a still-fragile economy, many businesses seem hesitant to commit to new hires. They appear to be holding out for the perfect candidate.
"We're living in a fear-based environment right now," says Kim First, CEO of the Agency Worldwide, a recruiting firm for pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
Those who do have jobs these days are unlikely to lose them. Layoffs have sunk to a pre-recession level.
But First says that companies feel they can't afford to take a risk by hiring someone who doesn't appear to be an ideal fit for the job they've advertised.
"They are really reluctant to make that leap of faith," she says. Companies "need someone to come in and hit the ground running."
The Labor Department said Tuesday that the number of job openings rose 8.7 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 3.93 million. That was the most since May 2008.
At the same time, companies hired a seasonally adjusted 4.4 million people, just 2.8 percent more than in January. And hiring remained lower than it was a year ago, when it reached 4.49 million.
The figures suggest that the Great Recession may have transformed the job market in ways that economists still don't fully understand. Normally, more openings lead, over time, to stronger hiring and steadily lower unemployment. Yet in May 2008, when job openings were as numerous as they are now, the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent. Now, it's 7.6 percent — far above the 5 percent to 6 percent range associated with a healthy economy.
And in 2007, before the recession began, employers were hiring an average of 5.2 million people a month — 15 percent more than in February this year.
The Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, reveals the total number of people hired and laid off. It differs from the department's jobs report, which provides each month's net job gain or loss. But by quantifying total hiring and layoffs, the JOLTS can paint a fuller picture of what employers are doing.
From November through February, employers added a net average of about 220,000 jobs a month. The JOLTS report shows that the biggest factor in those gains was that layoffs fell. Companies cut 1.5 million jobs in January — the fewest since the JOLTS data was first compiled in December 2000.
Fewer people are quitting, too. Their reluctance to leave reduces the opportunities for those out of work. About 2.3 million quit in February, below the average of nearly 2.9 million that were quitting each month when the recession began in December 2007.
Jason Faberman, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, likens the job market to a game of musical chairs: If no one gets up, there isn't any room for anyone else to sit.
In March, U.S. employers added a net 88,000 jobs, the fewest in nine months and less than half the pace of the previous six months.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that total hiring, as gauged by the JOLTS report, is something he and other Fed officials track in assessing the job market. The Fed has said it plans to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent.
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