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Job Openings Push Further into Record Territory at End of 2018--Update

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02/12/2019 | 12:23pm EDT

By Eric Morath

The number of job openings in the U.S. rose in December to the highest level since 2000.

There were a seasonally adjusted 7.34 million unfilled jobs on the last business day of December, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That was up from a revised 7.17 million at the end November, and surpassed August's then-record of 7.29 million openings.

The increased openings late last year was followed by robust hiring in January, separate Labor Department data showed earlier this month.

"Clearly there's solid demand for labor," said Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS Inc., a maker of employee-recruiting software. He said U.S. firms appear to be mostly shaking off worries about trade tension and slowing global growth. "Employers actions show they're still trying to find talent."

In December, openings exceeded the unemployed -- people without a job but actively seeking work -- by more than 1.04 million. Before March 2018, job openings had never exceeded unemployed workers in 18 years of monthly records.

The high number of job openings relative to those available to take them points to an extremely tight labor market. The unemployment rate was 3.9% in December, just above a 49-year low. The rate edged up to 4% in January, the department said earlier this month, but the increase was largely due to the partial government shutdown which caused some federal workers to be counted as temporarily unemployed.

But that gap between openings and unemployment narrowed slightly from November's record of 1.15 million.

That likely reflects a good labor market and modest improvement in wages is pulling some potential employees off the sidelines, and causing the unemployment to rise even while hiring remains strong.

Tuesday's report showed the rate at which Americans quit their job -- as a sign of confidence in the job market -- held steady for the third straight month in December. The rate was down slightly from the 17-year high touched last summer.

The rate of quits holding steady despite extremely low unemployment could suggest that American workers are growing a bit more cautious about the labor market at time when employers are moving ahead with hiring plans, Mr. Wright said.

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

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