WASHINGTON — Job openings rose sharply earlier 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 Labor Department said. That’s the highest total since February 2009.
Hiring is critical to sustaining the economic recovery because job growth boosts incomes and helps restore the confidence needed to drive consumer spending.
There are now about 5.5 unemployed people, on average, competing for each opening. That’s still far more than the 1.7 people who were competing for each opening when the recession began. But it’s down from just over 6 people per opening in December 2009.
Economists were encouraged by the report but cautioned that hiring will likely 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.
The economy has lost 8.4 million jobs since the recession began, the largest drop since the 1930s. The jobless rate was unchanged last month at 9.7 percent. Most economists expect the rate to remain elevated for several years.
Still, Greenhaus and other economists predict the economy will gain 200,000 to 300,000 jobs in March. That compares with the loss of 36,000 jobs that the government reported for February, though some of the reported losses last month were due to severe snowstorms.
Up to 100,000 of the net job gains expected for March will be due to government hiring for the Census, Greenhaus said.
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.”
The gradually brightening jobs picture corresponds to what many job search Web sites are reporting. The Monster employment index, a measure of online postings by the job board Monster.com, rose 2 percent in February compared with the previous year. That was the first year-over-year increase since December 2007, when the recession began, the company said.
Indeed.com, which aggregates job listings from thousands of online career boards and individual company sites, is also seeing improvement. The company said last week that 10 of the 12 industries it tracks posted more job openings in February than they did a year ago.
“We have seen a sharp turnaround in the job market in the last few months,” said Paul Forster, CEO of Indeed.com.