Economic Indicators | Jobs and Unemployment

Job openings and hiring increased slightly in January, but there are still 3.3 job-seekers for every job opening

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The January Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows job openings increased in January to nearly 3.7 million, a rise of 81,000 since December. The number of job openings, which had been improving generally since reaching its low of 2.2 million in July 2009, is still below its recent peak of 3.8 million in March 2012.

Hires also rose slightly in January, increasing by 52,000 to over 4.2 million. Like job openings, hires are still below their early 2012 levels. On the flip side, layoffs decreased by 62,000 in January to 1.5 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 fewer layoffs is definitely good news. However, because job openings and hiring remain so depressed, 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.

In January, the number of job seekers increased by 126,000, to 12.3 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—fell in January to 3.3-to-1 from 3.4-to-1 in December.

The job-seekers ratio has been improving 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 3.2-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 3.3-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. 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

See more work by Elise Gould