By Christopher S. Rugaber
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. employers stepped up their hiring in November but pulled back slightly on the number of jobs they advertised.
The mostly favorable report shows companies are gaining more confidence in the economy and filling more of their open positions. It follows other encouraging data on hiring that suggest 2012 may be a better year for job growth.
Employers filled almost 4.15 million jobs in November, a 3 percent increase from the previous month, the Labor Department said Tuesday. It also nearly matched September's hiring level, which was the highest since May 2010.
Since the recession ended more than two years ago, most of the improvement in the job market has been because of a sharp drop in layoffs, which have returned to pre-recession levels.
Henry Mo, an economist at Credit Suisse, said hiring hasn't rebounded as quickly.
"In that regard, it is encouraging to observe that hiring rose," Mo said.
Overall hiring has picked up since plummeting to 3.6 million in October 2009 - the lowest level in the 10 years the government has tracked the figure. That same month, the unemployment rate hit 10 percent, the highest level since the recession began in December 2007.
Hiring still has a long way to go before returning to pre-recession levels. Gross hiring exceeded 5 million each month in the three years before the downturn.
Companies and governments posted 3.16 million job openings in November, according to the Labor Department's monthly survey on Job Openings and Labor Turnover. That's down from 3.22 million job postings in October and 3.4 million in September, which was a three-year high.
It generally takes one to three months for employers to fill job openings. Given November's modest decline, job gains may fluctuate in the first couple of months of this year.
The number of available jobs has increased 30 percent since the recession officially ended in June 2009. Still, the postings are far below pre-recession levels of 4.5 million.
And there is heavy competition for each available job. About 13.3 million people were unemployed in November, which means there was an average of 4.2 people out of work for each opening. That's slightly better than October's ratio of 4.3.
The survey follows Friday's encouraging read on job growth in December.
The economy added 200,000 net jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent - its lowest level in three years. Job gains have now topped 100,000 for six straight months, the first such stretch in more than five years.
Tuesday's report offers more details on the churn that takes place each month at U.S. companies.
For example in November, employers hired 4.15 million people, while almost 4 million people either quit or were laid off from their jobs. The difference is similar to November's net gain of 100,000 jobs.
The modest improvement indicates that employers are not only advertising new jobs, but filling them as well.
That's a turnaround from 2010, when employers posted more jobs but hired at a slower pace.
Some companies were extremely selective and only hired candidates that exactly matched their needs, recruiters said. Other companies may not have been able to find candidates with the necessary skills.
That may be changing.
Businesses "aren't as picky as they were a year ago," said Mike Starich, president of Orion International, an employment agency in Austin, Texas.
"It's a confidence issue," he said. Even when companies approve a new position, "they still might be leery about hiring that person if they don't think things are going to get any better. Yet if they ... feel confident about the future, they'll hire."
Paul Forster, CEO of Indeed.com, a jobs listing website, said more companies are willing to pay to advertise their jobs. That suggests they are trying harder to find the employees they need.
"Companies are more willing to hire and spend more on recruitment advertising," Forster said. His company has more than doubled its revenue in the past year and is adding jobs itself.
Dan Schneider, chief executive of SIB Development & Consulting, says he plans to hire roughly 30 new employees this year. That's up from 20 in 2011.
His company, which is based in Charleston, S.C., helps businesses cut their operating costs by scouring routine bills and looking for savings.
Business has "really picked up" in recent months, Schneider said. "Before we used to sign on maybe one new client every week. Now, we bring one on every other day."
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