US job openings unexpectedly jumped by 165,000 in January as virus case counts hit their peak

Hiring coronavirus
A man wearing a face mask walks past a sign ‘Now Hiring’ in front of a store amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
  • US job openings rose to 6.9 million from 6.7 million in January, according to JOLTS data.
  • Economists had expected a slight decline through the first month of the year.
  • The hiring rate fell to 3.7% from 3.8% despite millions of Americans still looking for work.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Job openings in the US unexpectedly climbed in January as daily new COVID-19 cases peaked and the economic recovery slowly resumed.

Openings gained by 165,000 to roughly 6.9 million in the first month of the year, according to Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, data published Thursday. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had anticipated openings would decline slightly to 6.7 million.

The state and local government education and education services sectors drove the bulk of the jump in openings, according to the report. The professional and business services industry saw the biggest drop.

Roughly 1.5 Americans competed for every job in January, down from 1.6 the month prior.

The January reading places openings at their highest level in nearly a year and signals firms are preparing for widespread vaccination to fuel economic reopening. January saw daily case counts nearly halve through the month as distancing measures and vaccination cut into the coronavirus’ spread. The average daily rate of vaccination rose above 1 million in January as well, offering hope for a faster rebound than initially expected.

The country’s hiring rate fell to 3.7% from 3.8%. The gauge currently sits at levels seen before the pandemic. But with the unemployment rate remaining at elevated levels and roughly 10 million jobs still lost to the crisis, the slowed hiring rate is a gloomy sign that the job market will take long to fully recover.

Separations, which track quits and layoffs, fell in January to 5.3 million from 5.6 million. The quits rate ticked 0.1 points lower to 2.3. Total quits dropped by 96,000, with the biggest declines showing up in the wholesale trade and education services sectors.

Layoffs and discharges fell by 136,000 to roughly 1.7 million. The layoff rate dipped to 1.2% from 1.3%.

The JOLTS report joins weekly claims data in painting an encouraging picture of labor market trends. Weekly filings for unemployment benefits fell to an unadjusted 712,000 in the week that ended Saturday, the Labor Department said. That came in below the median economist estimate of 725,000 and the previous week’s revised count of 754,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ February jobs report also suggests hiring picked up during the drop in cases. The US added 379,000 nonfarm payrolls last month, handily beating the estimate for 200,000 additions. The unemployment rate declined to 6.2% from 6.3%, and the labor force participation rate held steady at 61.4%.

While the US labor market still has a ways to go before returning to pre-pandemic health, the report shows the rate of recovery improving after turning stagnant in the winter.