WASHINGTON - Job openings rose sharply earlier this year, evidence that employers are slowly ramping up hiring as the economy improves.
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.
The report is a sign that the economy is soon likely to generate consistent job gains. Some economists expect employers to add up to a net 300,000 jobs in March, though as many as a third of them could be temporary hiring for the 2010 Census.
Hiring is critical to sustaining the economic recovery because job growth boosts incomes and helps restore the confidence needed to drive consumer spending. A gradual increase in net hiring would help prevent the recovery from fizzling.
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 slowly 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.
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.