Job openings surged in March as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic 

Today’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) reports an all-time high number of job openings, surging to 8.1 million for the end of March. This is a positive sign that the economy is moving forward. While hires were little changed, I’m optimistic that in coming months those job openings will translate into filled jobs.

One important indicator from today’s report is the job seekers ratio—the ratio of unemployed workers (averaged for mid-March and mid-April) to job openings (at the end of March). On average, there were 9.8 million unemployed workers compared with 8.1 million job openings. This translates into a job seekers ratio of 1.2 unemployed workers to every job opening. Put another way, for every 12 workers who were officially counted as unemployed, there were only available jobs for 10 of them. That means, no matter what they did, there were no jobs for 1.6 million unemployed workers.

As with job losses, workers in certain industries are facing a steeper uphill battle. In the construction industry as well as arts, entertainment, and recreation, there were more than two unemployed workers per job opening. In educational services, accommodation and food services, other services, and transportation and utilities, there were more than three unemployed workers for every two job openings.


Unemployment and job openings by industry (in thousands), April 2021

Industry Unemployment, three-month average Job openings, three-month average Ratio
Mining 109.7 24.7 4.4
Construction 841.3 326.7 2.6
Educational services 200.0 125.0 1.6
Information 160.7 104.7 1.5
Transportation and utilities 594.0 398.7 1.5
Arts, entertainment, and recreation 324.0 225.7 1.4
Real estate and rental and leasing 133.3 93.3 1.4
Retail trade 1118.0 845.3 1.3
Other services 433.0 328.0 1.3
Durable goods manufacturing 451.7 386.0 1.2
Accommodation and food services 1232.3 1097.7 1.1
Nondurable goods manufacturing 337.0 342.7 1.0
Professional and business services 1118.3 1467.0 0.8
Finance and Insurance 200.3 275.3 0.7
Wholesale trade 189.0 270.7 0.7
Government 562.3 816.0 0.7
Health care and social assistance 694.3 1413.0 0.5
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Notes: Unemployment levels represent the average of the unemployment level for the current month and the subsequent month in the Current Population Survey to better line up with the job openings data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Both unemployment data and job openings data are then averaged over three months to smooth for better data reliability. These data are non-seasonally adjusted so caution is warranted when making comparisons across time.

Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and Current Population Survey.

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There has been much bemoaning of labor shortages, particularly within accommodations and food services, even though there are no available jobs for one-third of the job seekers in that sector. Any potential shortage from the recent surge in job openings is likely to be quite short-lived, as before long many more workers will come back into job-search as it becomes increasingly safe to pursue these public facing jobs with improving public health metrics, as childcare and schooling becomes more reliable, and as wages rise to compensate for the extra risk of working in face-to-face places during the lingering pandemic. And, as we saw in the April employment data last Friday, the labor market added 241,400 more jobs in accommodation and food services, so the trend is already moving in the right direction.

It’s also important to remember that all potential workers don’t show up in the official count of unemployed, particularly in this recession as workers sheltered at home to avoid the pandemic or to care for family members. The economic pain remains widespread with 22.1 million workers hurt by the coronavirus downturn. I hope hiring picks up in coming months since the labor market continued to face a significant jobs shortfall likely in the range of 9.0 to 11.0 million jobs.