Rich Kareckas  /  AP
A help-wanted sign advertises an opening at an AT&T cell phone store in Rockville Centre, N.Y., last week.
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updated 6/8/2010 2:58:17 PM ET 2010-06-08T18:58:17

Job openings jumped in April to the highest level in 16 months, a sign that private employers may boost hiring in coming months.

The number of jobs advertised at the end of April rose to 3.1 million from 2.8 million in March, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That's the most openings since December 2008.

Private employers accounted for the entire net gain. The government's advertising for jobs decreased, despite the hiring of hundreds of thousands of census workers in May.

The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, follows a disappointing employment report Friday that found private employers added only 41,000 jobs in May. Temporary census hiring accounted for 411,000 jobs. The unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent from 9.9 percent in April.

The rise in job openings "makes you a little more upbeat about the labor market," said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase.

Job openings have risen by about 740,000 since bottoming out at 2.3 million in July. But they remain far below pre-recession levels of about 4.5 million openings per month.

The competition for jobs remains tough. There were 5 unemployed people, on average, for each job opening in April. That's down from 5.4 in the previous month, but well above pre-recession levels of 1.8 jobless workers per opening.

The biggest increases in available jobs were in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and education and health services. Government job openings fell by 36,000.

The report also found that the number of people quitting jobs topped total layoffs for the third straight month. Nearly 2 million people quit their jobs in April, an increase of about 130,000 in the past two months. An increasing number of people voluntarily leaving jobs is a sign of confidence in the employment market, economists say. Workers are less likely to cling to their jobs if they believe others are available.

Other surveys also show that companies are likely to increase hiring, though at a slow pace. Staffing company Manpower Inc. said Tuesday that its quarterly employment outlook found more employers are planning to hire in the July-to-September quarter than the preceding three months.

Manpower said its employment index rose to a seasonally adjusted 6 percent, a point higher than in the March-to-June period. The index was at -2 a year ago, meaning more employers planned to cut jobs than hire. The survey covers 18,000 private and government entities.

Major Market Indices

Separately, the National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday that its small business optimism index rose to 92.2. That's the highest level since September 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis intensified. But that's still below the index's long-run average of 99, according to Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.

The NFIB's employment index rose to 1, the first positive reading in 19 months. It suggests more small businesses plan to add workers than cut them.

The reports come after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said late Monday that the recovery will continue "but it won't feel terrific." That's because economic growth won't be robust enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate, now at 9.7 percent, he said in remarks to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan research group.

More job openings added to the picture of a slow but steady recovery.

A monthly analysis by the Associated Press of conditions around the country showed that manufacturing job gains in the Midwest helped lower the nation's economic stress in April to its lowest point in five months. Economic stress levels dipped in every state except Louisiana and Nevada in April.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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