(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - U.S. employers posted the most job openings in four years in June, a positive sign that hiring may pick up.
The Labor Department said Tuesday job openings rose to a seasonally adjusted 3.8 million in June, up from 3.7 million in May. That's the most since July 2008. Layoffs also fell.
The data follow. A rise in openings could signal better hiring in the coming months. It typically takes one to three months to fill a job.
Even with the increase, hiring is competitive. There were 12.7 million unemployed people in June, or an average of 3.4 unemployed people for each job.
That's down a bit from May and much lower than the nearly 7-to-1 ratio in July 2009, just after the recession ended. In a healthy job market, the ratio is usually around 2 to 1. The current job-seekers ratio also remains above the high point in the last business cycle of 2.9 to 1 in September 2003.
Still, employers have been slow to fill jobs. Since the recession ended in 2009, openings have increased 57 percent. Overall hiring is up only 19 percent. And openings are still below pre-recession levels of about 5 million per month.
The July rise in job creation also belies the huge number of Americans who have been unemployed for months or years and who, as a result, have stopped looking for work.
The labor force participation rate -- the number of people who are employed or who are unemployed and looking for a job -- fell slightly in July, to 63.7 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank. That also remains well below the participation rate in December 2007, at 66 percent, before the worst of the housing crash.
That amounts to about 3.8 million workers who have left the workforce. To date, job growth has been too weak to encourage them to return.
Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the department said last week. That followed three months of weak hiring and eased concerns that the economy was stalling.
Yet the economy has generated an average of 150,000 jobs per month this year, about the same pace as 2011. That's not enough to rapidly drive down the unemployment rate, which ticked up to 8.3 percent in July from 8.2 percent in June. At that rate of job-creation, it would take roughly a decade for the economy to return to full employment.
In June, manufacturing, education and health care, and hotels and restaurants all posted more openings. Retailers and state, local and federal government agencies cut available jobs.
The government's monthly employment report, released last Friday, measures net hiring.
Tuesday's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, measures gross hiring. That fell in June from May to 4.36 million. But May's total was the highest in three and a half years.
When layoffs, quits and other separations are subtracted, the net gain is close to the 64,000 net job gains in June.
Layoffs dropped to 1.8 million in June, down from nearly 2 million in May.
Fewer layoffs make it easier for the economy to generate net job gains. As layoffs decline, fewer gross hires are needed to produce a net gain in jobs.