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Washington - Job openings dropped to a five-month low in September, signaling uneven progress in the labor market.
The number of positions waiting to be filled declined by 100,000 to 3.56 million from a revised 3.66 million the prior month, the Labor Department said Tuesday in a statement. Hiring and firing also decreased.
Jobs may be harder to come by as more American companies retrench in the face of a slowing global economy and the so-called fiscal cliff. The figures show the October gain in private employment, which was the biggest in eight months, will probably be difficult to sustain without faster economic growth.
"Hiring is the most costly expense for a business," Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, said before the report. "Until a framework for policy can be determined, which will come with the election and the resolution of the fiscal cliff, businesses are not likely to ramp up hiring."
Tuesday's report helps illuminate the government's monthly employment figures. In October, payrolls expanded by 171,000 workers after a 148,000 gain in September that was larger than first estimated, a report showed Nov. 2. Private payrolls rose by 184,000, the most since February. The jobless rate increased to 7.9 percent as more people began looking for work.
The number of people hired in September dropped to 4.19 million, pushing down the hiring rate to 3.1 percent from 3.3 percent, according to today's report.
Declines in job openings at professional and business services, government and manufacturing accounted for much of the decrease in available employment. Openings increased in education and health services as well as the trade, transportation and utilities industries.
Total firings, which exclude retirements and those who left their job voluntarily, decreased to 1.7 million from 1.85 million a month before, today's report showed.
About another 1.98 million people quit their jobs in September, down from 2.15 million in the prior month. That drove the total separations rate to 3 percent from 3.3 percent.
In the 12 months ended in September, the economy created a net 1.8 million jobs, representing 51.6 million hires and about 49.8 million separations, Tuesday's report showed.
Considering the 12.09 million Americans who were unemployed in September, today's figures indicate there were about 3.4 people vying for every opening, up from about 1.8 when the recession began in December 2007.
Without more openings, Cheryl Boyd from Columbus, Ohio, will have a harder time with the search she started in January. The 55-year-old said she enrolled in community college classes and career counseling and has been attending job fairs so far without success. She has interviewed for four positions, including one at a casino.
To make ends meet in the meantime, Boyd said she's been taking freelance photography jobs, babysitting for friends and using her credit card.
"I would take part time, full-time - I would take something below my qualification, anything," Boyd said. "It's just been an odd job search. I think what I've noticed is that it's the employer's market."
The weak global economy and the fiscal cliff - more than $600 billion of tax increases and budget cuts scheduled to take effect next year unless Congress acts - are probably preventing more companies from posting as many job openings.
Companies may also be waiting the results of the presidential election.
Talking to customers, "what we're hearing is that they're not hiring, they're not investing right now," Greg Lehmkuhl, preisdent of Con-way Freight Inc., said during a Nov. 1 call with analysts. "They're waiting for some more stability in the political and fiscal policies. Hopefully after the election and with the dealing of the fiscal cliff our customers will feel more confident in investing in their businesses."