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Job Openings Drop as Hiring Remains Elusive

The competition for jobs is intensifying as companies are reluctant to hire new workers, leaving millions of unemployed Americans chasing fewer job openings.

There were nearly 6.4 unemployed workers, on average, for each available job at the end of November, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday. That’s up from 6.1 in October and a record high.

There were 1.7 jobless people for each opening in December 2007, when the recession began.

Job openings fell sharply to 2.42 million in November from 2.57 million in October, according to the department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey.

That may sound like a lot, given the depths of the recession, but it’s the lowest number of job openings since July 2009 and the second-lowest since the department began tracking the data in 2000. It’s also about half the peak level of 4.8 million, reached in June 2007.

The decline shows that even as layoffs are slowing, hiring hasn’t picked up. The economy lost 85,000 jobs in December, the department said last week, an improvement from the average job cuts of 691,000 per month in the first quarter of last year. The unemployment rate was 10 percent, the same as in November.

Many economists expect the improving trend will continue and the economy will likely add jobs in the first quarter of this year. But with so many people out of work, the unemployment rate is forecast to top 10.5 percent later this year.

Small businesses are still reluctant to hire, according to a monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business. Eight percent of small companies plan to add jobs in the next three months, the NFIB said Tuesday, while 15 percent plan to reduce employment, little changed from the previous month.

Still, there are some signs that hiring is picking up. The Conference Board said last week that online job postings increased by 255,000, or 13 percent, to 3.64 million in December, according to its Help Wanted OnLine index. The index compiles job postings from 1,200 Internet employment Web sites.

But vacancies averaged only 3.36 million in 2009, down from about 4.7 million in 2007, the Conference Board said.

Companies are uncertain about the sustainability of the recovery, which has been fueled by government stimulus efforts such as tax breaks for home buyers. Those supports will start to fade this spring, and economists worry whether consumer or business spending will be able to pick up the slack.

Still, the government’s job openings report shows that even in a recession, millions of Americans are hired and fired. Employers hired almost 4.2 million people in November, the report said, an increase of about 130,000 from the previous month. But the number of people who quit their jobs, were fired or were laid off rose to 4.3 million that month.

Among all the churn, companies are hiring more employees that can help them cut costs, such as software developers, computer engineers and financial analysts.

Scot Melland, CEO of Dice Holdings, said the number of openings posted on Dice.com, an online job board for information technology workers, has increased from about 47,000 in the summer to nearly 52,000 currently.

One area with rapid growth is virtual data management, Melland said, or the use of software to help companies store their data more cheaply and efficiently.

Meanwhile, the health care industry is continuing to add jobs, as it has throughout the recession.

Job listings for physicians who specialize in treating patients in hospitals, or so-called hospitalists, grew 85.7 percent to 31,264 during the last 3 months of the year, according to the job-listings aggregator Indeed.com.

Gloria Humphrey, a recruiter in the Southeast for IPC The Hospitalist Co., a provider of hospitalist physicians, said she’s placing about 25 acute-care doctors a year.

Hospitalists can cut down on the length of a patient’s stay in the hospital, cutting the cost of care.

Those companies that are hiring are taking advantage of the increasing competition.

Grasshopper, a small, 45-employee high-tech company that provides virtual phone systems for startup companies, has hired five people in the past three months and is looking for three more web developers and a software engineer.

The company’s services allows clients to add multiple phone extensions, call forwarding and other services through one phone number.

“It’s great to have a lot of people to hire from,” said Michael Buffington, director of the company’s research division. “We can take our time and look for good candidates.”