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U.S. Job Openings Are Rising Closer to Pre-Coronavirus Levels

By Gwynn Guilford

The number of job openings in the U.S. has climbed since the spring and is now nearly back to the levels before the coronavirus pandemic hit the labor market, a sign of continued economic improvement despite a surge in infections and fading fiscal support.

There are now 10.8 million job openings posted on online sites across the U.S., up from 6 million at the low point in May of this year, after the pandemic triggered widespread business closures and other restrictions on activity, according to data the job-search site ZipRecruiter shared with The Wall Street Journal.

The current total is less than 2% below the February average, compared with a 46% gap in May.

The return of this measure of labor-market activity to pre-pandemic levels suggests that the recovery is continuing amid numerous headwinds, said Julia Pollak, labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

“The numbers are astonishingly good given waning fiscal support, given all the terrible news on [virus] case counts,” she said. “There are all kinds of headwinds and yet the economy keeps hiring and adding jobs and recalling furloughed employees and that’s really quite encouraging.”

However, hiring will have to pick up to regain the jobs lost during the pandemic, said Ms. Pollak. And that hole is deep. The labor market had by October recouped 12.1 million of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April, according to Labor Department data.

How fast the labor market heals depends on the pace of hiring, which was strong in October. Private employers added 906,000 jobs, including in leisure and hospitality, retail, and construction. Those gains more than offset a drop in government jobs, which partly reflected the release of temporary Census bureau workers.

The U.S. economy grew at a record pace in the third quarter, recovering around two-thirds of ground lost earlier this year due to the pandemic. Consumer spending rose 1.4% in September, on a seasonally adjusted monthly basis, though the pace of increase has eased since the summer. However, while goods expenditures rose 2%, consumers increased spending on services 1.1%.

The divergence between goods and services shows up in the job-posting data too, said Nick Bunker, economist at Indeed.com, a job-search marketplace.

“Where job postings are closer to last year’s trends are those related to goods consumption. Jobs involving getting goods to retailers and wholesalers — those are actually growing at a fair clip above their trend,” said Mr. Bunker, adding that service-sector industries involving crowds or close in-person interaction have recovered little since the spring.

Employers had posted 24% more loading and stocking job ads as of the last week in October than they had during the same week of 2019, according to Indeed data. However, openings for hospitality and tourism jobs were down 44%.

The number of workers’ weekly shifts, another measure of labor demand, increased 0.8% in October from September, according to UKG, a workforce management software company. That marked the sixth month of increase, though that pace slowed from 3.3% growth in August and September.

“No indicators are going in the wrong direction, however growth definitely has slowed down,” said Dave Gilbertson, UKG vice president of strategy and operations. “We’re still at least 12 to 18 months from being in the zone of full economic recovery.”

The volume of shifts worked by hourly employees in October was down around 13% from February levels, according to UKG, which tracks activity across 30,000 U.S. businesses and 3.2 million employees. Shift work bottomed out in April at 33% of that level.

On Tuesday, the Labor Department separately released its monthly report on labor demand, showing a seasonally adjusted 6.4 million available jobs on the last business day of September. That was about the same as the number of openings at the end of August, but down from 7.1 million a year earlier.

The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey lags behind the more closely watched monthly jobs report and private-sector data by about a month.

The level of job openings in September was well exceeded by the 12.6 million people who were unemployed that month, according to the Labor Department. The rapid rise in coronavirus infections and the hazy outlook for fresh fiscal relief in coming months may make it harder to close that gap, said Mr. Bunker.

“A third wave seems to be picking up and there’s uncertainty around what’s happening with fiscal policy,” he said.

Write to Gwynn Guilford at gwynn.guilford@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

11-10-20 1107ET

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