Drop in job openings signals uneven improvement

Job applicants wait for the opening of a job fair in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Labor Department says job growth has been slow and uneven.
Job applicants wait for the opening of a job fair in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Labor Department says job growth has been slow and uneven. (LYNNE SLADKY / AP)
Posted: November 08, 2012

Job openings in the United States dropped to a five-month low in September, signaling uneven progress in the labor market, which may extend through year-end.

The number of positions waiting to be filled declined by 100,000 to 3.56 million from the prior month, the Labor Department said Tuesday in a statement. Openings have cooled since reaching a peak this year of 3.74 million in March.

A slowing global economy and the risk that Congress won't avert $607 billion in automatic federal tax increases and spending cuts next year represent obstacles for American companies as they assess hiring plans. The openings figures show that the October jump in private payrolls, the biggest in eight months, may be difficult to sustain without faster economic growth.

"We're looking at a very subdued pace of employment," said Michelle Girard, senior U.S. economist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "The economy is growing, but growing too slowly. Firms want more clarity on the outlook before they're actually going to step up their hiring pace."

Talking to customers, "what we're hearing is that they're not hiring, they're not investing right now," said Greg Lehmkuhl, president of Con-way Freight Inc., during a Nov. 1 conference call. "They're waiting for some more stability in the political and fiscal policies. Hopefully after the election and with the dealing of the fiscal cliff, our customers will feel more confident in investing in their businesses."

The number of Americans hired in September dropped to 4.19 million, pushing down the hiring rate to 3.1 percent from 3.3 percent, according to Tuesday's Labor Department report.

Without more openings, Cheryl Boyd from Columbus, Ohio, will have a harder time with the search she started in January. The 55-year-old said she enrolled in community-college classes and career counseling and has been attending job fairs - so far without success. She has interviewed for four positions, including one at a casino.

"I would take part time, full time - I would take something below my qualification, anything," Boyd said. "It's just been an odd job search. I think what I've noticed is that it's the employer's market."

Considering the 12.09 million Americans who were unemployed in September, the Labor Department figures indicate there were about 3.4 people vying for every opening, up from about 1.8 when the recession began in December 2007.

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