WASHINGTON — The number of available jobs in the United States jumped in December to near a three-year high, supporting other data that show a brighter outlook for hiring.
Companies and governments posted 3.38 million jobs in December, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That's up from the 3.12 million advertised in the previous month and nearly matches the three-year high reached in September.
Job openings in the private sector reached the highest point in almost 31/2 years.
Still, overall hiring slipped, and the number of people who quit their jobs also declined. That suggests the job market still isn't as dynamic as it was before the recession.
Manufacturers, retailers and professional and business services — which include temporary jobs — all posted gains. But they also include high-paying positions, such as architects, engineers and accountants.
The report on job openings follows Friday's optimistic employment figures. Those showed employers added 243,000 net jobs in January, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent.
December was also a big month for hiring, but there were still 13.1 million people unemployed that month. That means an average of 3.9 people competed for each open job in December, the first time in four years that ratio was below 4 to 1.
In a healthy job market, the ratio is usually about 2 to 1.
It generally takes one to three months for employers to fill job openings. December's big jump in postings is likely one reason January's jobs report was healthy. But it also suggests job growth may continue in the coming months.
Job openings have rebounded since the recession ended in June 2009, rising 39 percent since then. But they are still far below the pre-recession levels of roughly 4.5 million.
And hiring hasn't kept up with job openings. It's risen only 11 percent since June 2009.
The slow recovery in hiring may be one reason the job market still seems sluggish to many people, particularly those out of work, even as the unemployment rate has fallen for five months straight.
Tuesday's report shows that most of the improvement in December's net gain of 203,000 jobs stems from lower layoffs and fewer people quitting, rather than a pickup in hiring.
Layoffs dropped to 1.6 million in December, below the pre-recession monthly average of about 1.9 million. Last year, layoffs fell to their lowest annual total in the 10 years that the government has tracked the data, Tuesday's report showed.
At the same time, the number of people quitting their jobs, while rising, is also far below pre-recession levels. That's not such a good thing. Workers tend to quit when they find another job, usually with better pay.