WASHINGTON — U.S. employers stepped up their hiring in November, though they advertised fewer jobs for a second straight month. The mixed data suggest the job market has strengthened but employers remain cautious.
Until this fall, most of the improvement in the job market since the recession ended has been largely because of a sharp drop in layoffs. The jump in hiring reported Tuesday suggests companies are feeling more confident in the economy and are expanding, albeit slowly.
Employers filled almost 4.15 million jobs in November, a 3 percent increase from the previous month. That nearly matched September's hiring level, which was the highest since May 2010.
Henry Mo, an economist at Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients that layoffs have fallen to pre-recession levels, but overall hiring hasn't yet rebounded.
"In that regard, it is encouraging to observe that hiring rose," Mo said.
Companies and governments posted 3.16 million jobs in November, the Labor Department said, down from 3.22 million in the previous month. Openings reached a three-year high of 3.4 million in September.
It generally takes one to three months for job openings to be filled. The modest decline in November suggests that job gains may fluctuate in the first couple of months of this year.
Still, the number of available jobs has increased 30 percent since the recession officially ended in June 2009. They are still far below pre-recession levels of 4.5 million.
And there is heavy competition for each available job. About 13.3 million people were unemployed in November, which means there was an average of 4.2 people out of work for each opening. That's slightly better than October's ratio of 4.3.
The report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, followed Friday's encouraging read on job growth in December.
The economy added 200,000 net jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent — its lowest level in three years. Job gains have now topped 100,000 for six straight months, the first such stretch in more than five years.
There have been other signs that the job market is getting better. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in more than three years.
And a measure of small business optimism rose for the fourth straight month in December, the National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday.
That optimism is translating into more hiring: The proportion of small companies planning to hire over the next three months was at its second-highest level in the past three years in December, the NFIB said, just below November's level.