WASHINGTON — U.S. job openings surged in February to a 14-year high, yet employers filled fewer of those jobs than in the previous month.
On a brighter note, the Labor Department also said Tuesday that layoffs fell sharply. Taken together, the figures suggest that signs of a stumbling economy prompted U.S. businesses to pull back on hiring. But they weren't spooked enough to cut more jobs.
The number of available jobs rose 3.4 percent in February to 5.1 million, the government says, the most since January 2001. That indicates companies want to add staff, and suggests that a slowdown in job gains in March could be temporary. Employers that didn't fill their open jobs in March may do so in the following months.
The sharp rise in open jobs "is a reassuring sign that the fundamentals of the labor market have continued to improve," said Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
The government said last week that employers added just 126,000 jobs in March, the fewest in 15 months. Many economists blamed that weak figure on temporary factors, such as harsh winter weather, a labor dispute at West Coast ports that disrupted shipping, and a stronger dollar that has hurt U.S. export sales.
The disappointing jobs report Friday came after a raft of data suggesting that the economy faltered in the first three months of this year. Consumers have been reluctant to ramp up spending, and have been saving much of the windfall from cheaper gas prices. Fewer exports have lowered factory output. Home construction has also been weak.
The jobs figures reported Friday are a net figure: Jobs gained minus jobs lost. The data being reported Tuesday are more detailed. They calculate total hires, as well as quits and layoffs. Tuesday's data also reflects data for February, and is a month behind last week's jobs report.
Despite the rise in openings, Tuesday's data also showed that total hiring in February slipped 1.6 percent to 4.9 million. That may reflect caution on the part of employers. It also suggests that they may be having trouble finding workers with the skills they need.
Some economists say that employers are not offering enough pay to fill their available jobs. Rising openings could force businesses to offer higher wages.
There are some signs that may already be happening. Retailers had nearly 30,000 more open jobs in February than the previous month, while hotels and restaurants posted 37,000 more jobs. Yet neither sector filled all those jobs: Retail hiring fell in February compared to the previous month, while hotel and restaurant hiring rose by a smaller amount than openings.
Many companies in those sectors have announced high-profile wage increases in recent months, including Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Ikea, and TJX Cos., the parent of discount store operator TJ Maxx and Marshall's.
Average hourly earnings rose 0.3 percent in March, the government said last week, a sign wages may be perking up. But they are still just 2.1 percent higher than a year ago, similar to the tepid gains that have occurred since the recession ended in June 2009.
Layoffs, meanwhile, plummeted 7.6 percent to 1.6 million, the lowest level in 16 months. That points to a high degree of job security for those Americans who are employed.
The number of people quitting their jobs slipped 3.3 percent to 2.7 million, the report showed. That is still 10.2 percent higher than a year ago. More people quitting can be a good sign for the economy, because people typically quit when they have found another job, usually at higher pay.