Employers posted more job openings in June and layoffs fell, a sign that hiring could improve a bit in the coming months.
The number of available jobs rose to 3.1 million, up from 3 million in May, the Labor Department said Wednesday. It was the highest total since March.
Still, 14 million Americans remain unemployed. The weak economy is not generating enough jobs to rapidly reduce that figure. And the total number of job openings is far below healthy levels seen before the recession.
For those who are out of work, there is heavy competition for each available position. Roughly 4.5 unemployed people, on average, were competing for each job in June. That's down only slightly from 4.6 in May. In a healthy economy, the ratio is about 2 to 1.
Even if all the positions were filled, there would still be about 11 million unemployed people. That compares to the 7.7 million who were out of work when the recession began.
There were more jobs available in retail, at hotels and restaurants, and for professionals, a broad category that includes accountants, engineers and temporary help. Postings fell in construction, education and health care. Open manufacturing positions were flat. Layoffs fell slightly from a nine-month high in May.
June's total number of openings was higher than the 2.1 million posted in July 2009, one month after the recession officially ended and the lowest total since the government began recording the data a decade ago. But it is also significantly below the 4.4 million openings in December 2007, when the recession began.
The economy expanded at just a 0.8 percent annual rate in the first six months of this year, the slowest since the recession officially ended two years ago. In June, consumers cut spending for the first time in 20 months and saved more.
Companies have reduced hiring in recent months. Employers added an average of only 72,000 jobs per month from May through July, after creating an average of 215,000 jobs per month in the preceding three months.
The unemployment rate ticked down to 9.1 percent last month. Still, it has been above 9 percent in all but two months since the recession ended.
Fewer than 1.8 million lost their jobs in June, compared to nearly 1.84 million in May, according to the report known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. In the worst months of the recession, layoffs reached 2.5 million per month.
The report also illustrates the level of churn that takes place in the job market each month. In June, 4.05 million people were hired and 4.02 million people left their jobs, either because they quit or were laid off. The difference between those two figures is similar to the 46,000 net gain in jobs reported in the June employment report.
The Federal Reserve on Tuesday offered a dim outlook for the economy, saying it expects growth will stay weak for two more years. As a result, the Fed said it would likely keep the short-term interest rate near zero at least through mid-2013.
The move could hold down interest rates on mortgages, car loans and business loans. Lower rates may also support stock prices, since bonds are likely to make less money.
The market rallied after the Fed announcement. The Dow Jones industrial average closed 429 points higher. But on Wednesday, stocks tumbled and the Dow erased all of those gains. Many investors are nervous that the U.S. economy could be on the verge of another recession.