updated 2/8/2011 11:02:42 AM ET 2011-02-08T16:02:42

Employers posted fewer job openings in December, the second straight month of declines. That's a sign hiring is still weak even as the economy is gaining strength.

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The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised nearly 3.1 million jobs that month, a drop of almost 140,000 from November. That's the lowest total since September.

Openings have risen by more than 700,000 since they bottomed out in July 2009, one month after the recession ended. That's an increase of 31 percent.

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But they are still far below the 4.4 million available jobs that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

The figures follow a mixed jobs report released last week, which showed the unemployment rate fell sharply to 9 percent in January from 9.4 percent the previous month. But it also found that employers added a net total of only 36,000 jobs, far below what's needed to consistently reduce unemployment.

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There are far more unemployed people than there are job openings. Nearly 14.5 million people were out of work in December. As a result, on average there were 4.7 people competing for each available job. That's below the ratio of 6.3, reached in November 2009, the highest since the department began tracking job openings in 2000.

But in a healthy economy, the ratio would fall to roughly 2, economists say.

The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, counts number of jobs advertised on the last business day of the month. The figures are for December, but economists say the report provides an indication of future hiring patterns because it can take several months to fill many jobs.

Job openings dropped sharply in professional and business services, a category that includes temporary help agencies. They also fell in construction, manufacturing, and in education and health services.

Job openings rose in trade, transportation and utilities, and in retail.

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