Job openings dropped in May from the previous month and layoffs edged up, fresh evidence that employers are reluctant to add workers.
The decline in job openings comes after a sharp rise the previous two months, driven by temporary government hiring for the 2010 census and more openings in the private sector. As a result, the number of available jobs has rebounded since the depths of the recession but remains well below pre-recession levels.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that job openings fell to 3.2 million in May from 3.3 million in the previous month. April's upwardly revised figure was the highest in 18 months.
The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, illustrates how competitive the job market is. There were about 4.7 unemployed people, on average, for each job opening in May. That's down from the peak of 6.3 last November, but is much higher than the 1.8 unemployed per opening when the recession began in December 2007.
May's job openings are 37 percent above the low point of 2.3 million openings in July 2009. But the figure is still far below pre-recession levels of about 4.5 million.
And the improvement in some industries is slowing. Manufacturing, for example, saw openings rise by only 1,000 in May to 196,000. That compares to average gains of 14,000 in the previous three months.
Retailers cut their job openings in April and May, after increasing them in the previous three months. Many retailers boosted hiring earlier this year after a successful winter holiday shopping season, but have cut back as consumer spending remains weak.
Layoffs increased by about 100,000 to 1.9 million in May, the department said, but remain at pre-recession levels. The department said layoffs rose to a peak of 2.6 million in January 2009.
One reason hiring is weak is that small businesses, which create about 60 percent of new jobs, are having trouble getting the credit they need to expand and hire more workers.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Monday urged banks to lend more to small companies. Such lending "is crucial to our economic recovery," he said.
Bank loans to small companies dropped to $670 billion in the first quarter of this year from $710 billion in the second quarter of 2008.
The government's job openings figure measures the total positions available on the last day of the month. It's a sign of how much hiring might take place in the following month or two as the positions are filled.
The government's job openings report echoes other recent data that shows hiring by private employers weakened in May and June. That is heightening concerns that the economic recovery is slowing.
Businesses added a net total of only 83,000 jobs in June and 33,000 in May, after average net gains of 200,000 in March and April. The economy needs to generate at least 100,000 new jobs per month just to keep up with the rising population, and twice that level to rapidly reduce the unemployment rate, currently at 9.5 percent.
The economy has grown for three straight quarters, but at a weak pace compared to many previous recoveries. Many private employers, nervous about the future of the recovery, are still cautious about hiring.
For example, the top executive at CSX Corp., the nation's third-largest railroad, says the company is shipping more freight but is worried the economic recovery could slow later this year.
Michael Ward, chief executive of CSX, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the company is focused on improving the efficiency of its current work force. CSX furloughed many of its employees last year but hasn't yet hired them all back.
Instead, the company has taken steps such as making its trains longer, allowing them to carry more without adding new hires.
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