WASHINGTON — It turns out we may be able to breathe easier about the slowdown in hiring last month.
A Labor Department report Tuesday showed that job openings surged 3.4 percent to 5.1 million in February — a 14-year high.
The figure follows a disappointing jobs report Friday that showed employers added only 126,000 jobs in March, the weakest number in 15 months.
The pickup in open jobs, however, suggests that hiring could rebound in the coming months. Businesses have been slow to fill openings for much of the recovery and may start filling more of their open jobs in April.
The increase in available jobs, even as hiring slows, could also be a sign that employers will have to try harder to fill jobs. Businesses may be forced to offer higher pay to attract more workers.
The sharp rise in available jobs "is a reassuring sign that the fundamentals of the labor market have continued to improve," said Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
Other recent data point to better hiring and growth in the second quarter. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell last week. And a survey of service firms, including retailers, banks and construction companies, found that they expanded at a healthy pace last month.
To be sure, there were some negative signs in Tuesday's report. Total hiring slipped 1.6 percent in February to 4.9 million, the second straight decline. At the same time, layoffs plummeted 7.6 percent to 1.6 million, the lowest level in 16 months. That points to a high degree of job security for those who are employed.
The data in Tuesday's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, shows that February's net gain of 264,000 jobs may not have been as good as it looked.
The gain mostly occurred because of the steep fall in layoffs.
Many economists blamed the tepid job gain on temporary factors, such as harsh winter weather, a labor dispute at West Coast ports that disrupted shipping, and a stronger dollar that has hurt U.S. export sales. Most now expect the economy expanded at only a 1 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, down from 2.2 percent in the final three months of last year.