progress in the job market is real but has yet to grow strong enough to encourage workers whose skills don't fit jobs now being created, a new government report suggests.
employers had 3.4 million job openings at the end of december, up 258,000 since november for the biggest gain since february 2011, the labor department reported tuesday. the figures fuel the perception of momentum after last week's news that the economy added 243,000 net jobs in january, and that the unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a point to 8.3%.
trouble is, more-obscure statistics show the recovery is still not as strong or broadly based as past upturns, ihs global insight economist michelle valverde said.
the number of workers who have given up looking for jobs is 1.1 million, about the same as last year; 43% of jobless people have been out of work for more than six months vs. 44% a year ago; and the raw amount of hiring dipped slightly in december from november, as 4.0 million people accepted new jobs.
"it's a good news, bad news story," said troy davig, senior u.s. economist at barclays capital in new york. "if you have the skills, fine, opportunities are growing. the labor market is obviously not exploding, but there are plenty of indicators that point to momentum."
the unemployment rate has dropped from 10% as recently as october 2009 and 9.1% last august, driven by slow growth in the workforce as much as an uptick in jobs. there are 3.9 unemployed workers for every available job, down from nearly 7-to-1 in late 2009 but still more than twice as many as before the recession.
december's figure is "a good number, but we should take it with a grain of salt," valverde said.
some industries hit hard by post-2007 job losses are still hiring much more slowly than employers as a whole. construction companies have only 1.3 jobs available for every 100 people who work in the industry, about half as many as in the broader economy.
that's a sign that damage from the housing bust is far from repaired, even though construction has added 50,000 jobs in the last two months. job openings in manufacturing and government are also less plentiful than the national averages, according to tuesday's report.
there are lots of jobs available in professional and business services, an area that includes about 17 million of the 132.4 million working americans. employers there are looking for about 3.6 workers for every 100 they have now and hired 787,000 people in december, down from 845,000 in november.
in sectors such as services, the gap between slow growth in hiring and a more brisk upturn in job openings points to a mismatch between workers who are looking and the jobs that are available, davig said. in a january survey of small businesses by thenational federation of independent business, more than a third of entrepreneurs said they had tried to hire someone in the last several months but had been unable to find candidates with the appropriate skills.
the next report on the jobs market is thursday's on new unemployment insurance claims.
that number has generally been falling for several months, davig said.
in the week ended jan. 28, the government reported 367,000 new claims, a decrease of 12,000 from the previous week. the four-week moving average, a measure economists watch to prevent overreactions to unusual one-week swings, was 375,750: 2,000 fewer than the previous week's number.