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Job openings soar to highest level on record, 8.1 million

Inside April's disappointing jobs report
Why April's hiring numbers are lower than expected 10:51

U.S. employers posted a record number of available jobs in March, illustrating starkly the desperation of businesses seeking to find new workers as the economy expands after the pandemic recession.

Yet total hiring increased only modestly, according to a Labor Department report issued Tuesday. The figures come after a Friday report showed that job gains in April fell far short of expectations, largely because companies appear unable to find the workers they need, even with the unemployment rate elevated at 6.1%.

Job openings rose nearly 8%, to 8.1 million in March, the most on record dating back to December 2000, the government said. Yet overall hiring in March rose less than 4%, to 6 million. The hiring number is a gross figure, while the government's jobs report — which said 770,000 jobs were added in March — uses a net total.

The rate of openings was highest in the leisure and hospitality industries, nondurable goods manufacturing and professional and business services.

In a separate survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses released Tuesday, a record number of business owners — 44% — said they were unable to fill job openings.

The reports "[add] to evidence that labor supply isn't keeping up with surging demand as employers scramble to find qualified workers," Lydia Boussour, an economist at Oxford Economics, said in a research note. 

She added, "the number of quits rose by the most in six months in a sign that workers are growing increasingly confident to leave their current positions."

The number of job openings falls far short of the 9.8 million workers who said they were unemployed and searching for work in April. But the high level of unfilled jobs is likely to fuel a political dispute about whether the extra $300 in weekly federal unemployment aid, on top of a state payment averaging about $320, is discouraging those out of work from seeking new jobs. Many Republicans in Congress have argued that it is, and five states so far have moved to cut off the $300 payments, with Georgia the latest state to consider such a move.

President Joe Biden, who included the extra money in his $1.9 trillion rescue package approved in March, disputed on Monday that the $300 supplemental payment is to blame. But he also urged the Labor Department to work with states on renewing requirements that those receiving aid must search for jobs and take a position if offered. The job search rule was suspended during the pandemic, when many businesses were closed.

"Anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits," Biden said.

Many people out of work are also reluctant to take jobs in service industries that require contact with the public for fear of contracting COVID-19. And many women aren't searching for jobs because they haven't found child care for children who are still at home taking online classes for at least part of the week. 

While many of the factors holding back workers are temporary, "longer-lasting factors are also at play," Capital Economics' Michael Pearce said in a research note. A shortage of semiconductors is pushing down employment in auto manufacturing, he noted, while high rates of openings in manufacturing and professional and business services "suggest skills mismatches are holding back those sectors."

CBS News' Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.

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