WASHINGTON - The number of available jobs posted by U.S. employers rose in December to the highest level in 14 years, a sign recent strong job gains will likely continue. Employers also filled more jobs and more employees quit, two additional signs of an improving labor market.
Job openings rose 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted 5 million, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That is the most since January 2001. Total hires also increased 1.9 percent to 5.1 million, the most in more than seven years.
The number of quits rose 2.1 percent to 2.7 million. More quits are a sign of confidence in the labor market, because people typically quit when they have another job lined up, usually at higher pay, or are optimistic that they can find a new position.
More openings are usually followed by greater hiring. Businesses appear increasingly confident that the economy will continue to improve and are seeking more staff to meet stronger demand.
The figures echo last week's monthly employment report, which showed that businesses are adding jobs at a robust pace and even paying more to attract workers. Employers added 257,000 jobs in January, and wages rose at the fastest one-month pace in six years.
Hiring has accelerated in the past three months to the fastest pace since 1997. Employers have added more than 1 million jobs just since November.
The strong job gains encouraged many Americans to start looking for work. More than 700,000 people began looking for work in January, the most in six years. Not all found jobs, lifting the number of unemployed and pushing the unemployment rate to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent.
There are now just 1.7 unemployed workers, on average, for each available job. That's the lowest such ratio since November 2007, just before the Great Recession began. It's down from a peak of 6.7 in July 2009, after the recession ended.
That ratio suggests that employers may need to soon offer more pay to attract workers. Average hourly wages rose 0.5 percent in January, the jobs report said, the most in six years.
Still, in the past 12 months, average pay rose just 2.2 percent. That's below the 3.5 percent level that is consistent with a strong economy.