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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

Openings in January highest since February '09


WASHINGTON - Job openings rose sharply this year, evidence that employers are slowly ramping up hiring.

The number of openings in January rose about 7.6 percent, to 2.7 million, compared with December, the U.S. Labor Department said. That total is the highest since February, 2009.

On average, about 5.5 unemployed people now are competing for each opening. That is far more than the 1.7 people who were competing for each opening when the recession began.

But it is down from just over 6 people per opening in December. Economists were encouraged by the report but cautioned that hiring probably will increase only gradually this year.

"It's getting better, though not as quickly as you'd like," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak.

Since the recession began, the economy has lost 8.4 million jobs, the largest drop since the 1930s. Last month the jobless rate was unchanged at 9.7 percent. Most economists expect the rate to remain elevated for several years.

Still, Mr. Greenhaus and other economists predict the economy will gain 200,000 to 300,000 jobs in March.

For February, the government reported that 36,000 were lost. Some of those losses last month were because of severe snowstorms.

Government hiring for the Census should account for 100,000 of the net job gain expected for March, Mr. Greenhaus said.

Hiring is critical to sustaining the economic recovery because job growth boosts incomes and helps restore the confidence needed to drive consumer spending.

The transition to job growth "is an important step in the expansion," Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, wrote in a note to clients. "It will not change the story that this will be a subdued recovery … but will reduce the odds of a relapse."

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