Job openings rise, layoffs fall as pandemic economy mends

WASHINGTON — Companies posted more open jobs in January while layoffs decreased as the economy heals slowly from the pandemic.

There were 6.9 million jobs available on the last day in January, up from 6.7 million in December, the Labor Department said Thursday. That suggests employers are getting ready to hire in the coming months.

Hiring actually began to pick up in February, according to last Friday’s jobs report, which showed that employers added 379,000 jobs, the most since October, while the unemployment rate fell to 6.2%, from 6.3%. While the economy still has 9.5 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic, February’s job gain was much higher than January’s and came after a sharp job loss in December, suggesting the economy, after stalling out late last year, is mending.

Thursday’s report tracks gross job gains and losses, while last week’s figure is a net change in total jobs. The data released Thursday also showed that layoffs fell to just under 1.7 million in January, the same pace of job cuts that was occurring before the pandemic.

Those data contrast with the number of people seeking unemployment benefits, which fell last week but remain at a very elevated level of 712,000, according to a separate report Thursday. That suggests an unusually high number of Americans are still losing jobs. The figures may vary for several reasons. The government has broadened the eligibility for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, for example by allowing those who have refused to take jobs they felt were unsafe to claim aid.

Many recipients of unemployment aid also report having to apply multiple times to get through overwhelmed state systems, potentially lifting the number of jobless claims.

Other measures of the job market also show that employers are increasingly looking to hire.

According to a survey by ManpowerGroup, an employment agency, nearly one-quarter of companies surveyed said they plan to add workers in the April-June quarter. That’s the most since the pandemic began. And one-third expect to return to their pre-pandemic hiring levels by July, while more than half expect to do so by the end of the year.

Hiring in the second quarter will be led by leisure and hospitality companies, ManpowerGroup’s survey found. That category includes restaurants, bars, hotels, and entertainment venues, the same industries that have suffered some of the worst job losses.

About 37% of companies in leisure and hospitality expect to add jobs in the next three months, the highest among the 12 large industries that ManpowerGroup surveyed. Next was transportation and utilities, which includes delivery drivers and warehouses, where 26% of companies plan to add workers. And third was professional and business services, which includes high-paying sectors such as architecture and engineering, with 25% of firms in that industry expecting to hire.

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