By Christopher S. Rugaber
WASHINGTON -- The number of U.S. jobs openings fell in January from a 3½-year high. The modest decline suggests hiring could continue at its healthy pace but may not accelerate.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers posted 3.46 million job openings in January. That's down from 3.54 million advertised in December, the most since August 2008. The department revised data back to January 2007.
The figures follow a government report Friday that showed the economy added 227,000 net jobs in February. It was the third straight month of strong job gains.
There were still 12.8 million unemployed people in January. That means an average of 3.7 people competed for each open job that month, the lowest ratio in three years. Still, the ratio is usually around 2 to 1 in healthy job markets.
It generally takes one to three months for employers to fill job openings. More openings in December and January likely contributed to February's strong job growth. And they suggest hiring gains could continue to be above 200,000 a month in the coming months.
Job openings have rebounded 45 percent since the recession ended in June 2009. But they are still far below the pre-recession levels of roughly 5 million.
Manufacturers advertised more jobs in January than the previous month. Retailers, professional and business services, and hotels and restaurants posted fewer openings. Professional and business services include temporary help, but also higher-paid jobs such as accounting, engineering and legal services.
The unemployment rate stayed at 8.3 percent last month, after falling for five straight months. Some of that decline is because many of those out of work have given up looking for jobs. When people stop looking for work, they are no longer counted among the unemployed.
But much of the drop reflects a pickup in job creation. The economy added 734,000 net jobs from December through February, the best three months of hiring in two years.
Separately, more businesses plan to step up hiring this spring, according to a quarterly survey by the staffing company ManpowerGroup, released Tuesday. The group's employment outlook index rose to 10 in the second quarter, the highest since the final three months of 2008.
"Our survey data ... is particularly encouraging because the positive hiring intentions are widespread across states, regions and markets," Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup's president of the Americas. "Positive hiring intentions tell us that employers are seeing increased demand for their products and services."
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