Economic Indicators | Jobs and Unemployment

Job openings and hires fell in March, and there are still 3.1 job seekers for every job opening


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The March Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows job openings fell slightly in March to 3.8 million, a decrease of 55,000 since February. The number of job openings has generally improved since reaching its low of 2.2 million in July 2009. While there has been some upward and downward variation over the last year, job openings are now at about the same level as in March 2012.

Job openings are also similar to where they were about five years ago as the economy began its downward turn; however, the number of job seekers is still much higher. In March, the number of job seekers, which fell by 290,000 from February, stood at 11.7 million (current unemployment data are from the Current Population Survey and can be found here). The “job-seekers ratio”—the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings—held steady in March at 3.1-to-1.

Hires also fell in March, decreasing by 192,000 to under 4.3 million. Unlike job openings, hires are still below their early 2012 levels. At the same time, layoffs increased by 121,000 in March to nearly 1.7 million. While layoffs are not currently the primary concern in the labor market (having been at prerecession levels for more than two years), that there are greater layoffs is not good news. Furthermore, the consequences to workers of being laid off are far worse now than before the recession began; they are less likely to find a new job within a reasonable timeframe, particularly one that pays as much as the job lost.

As shown in Figure A, the job-seekers ratio has improved fairly steadily since reaching its peak of 6.7-to-1 in July 2009. Despite this improvement, odds remain stacked against job seekers; the ratio has been 3.1-to-1 or greater for more than four years. A job-seekers ratio above 3-to-1 means there are no jobs for more than two out of three unemployed workers. To put today’s ratio of 3.1-to-1 in perspective, it is useful to note that the highest the ratio ever got in the early 2000s downturn was 2.9-to-1 in September 2003. In a labor market with strong job opportunities, the ratio would be close to 1-to-1, as it was in December 2000 (when it was 1.1-to-1).

The JOLTS data are also useful for diagnosing what’s behind our persistently high unemployment. In today’s economy, unemployed workers far outnumber job openings in every sector. Figure B shows that there are more, and, in most cases, more than twice as many, unemployed workers for every job opening in each industry. This demonstrates that the main problem is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—and not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.

— With research assistance from Natalie Sabadish and Hilary Wething


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