updated 4/13/2011 11:13:02 AM ET 2011-04-13T15:13:02

Businesses in February posted the largest number of job openings in more than two years, evidence that hiring is picking up as the economy grows.

Major Market Indices

The Labor Department said Wednesday that employers advertised 3.1 million available jobs that month, the most since September 2008. That was the height of the financial crisis, when Lehman Brothers collapsed.

The competition for those jobs is easing, though still intense. The department's report shows that there were 4.4 people, on average, competing for each available job in February. That's down from nearly 7 in July 2009, but still above the approximately 2 to 1 ratio that exists in a healthy economy.

A rise in employment advertisements is the latest sign that companies are stepping up hiring. The private sector in March added more than 200,000 jobs for a second straight month, the first time that's happened since 2006. And the unemployment rate fell to 8.8 percent, the lowest level in two years.

Job openings are usually filled within one to three months after posting, which means the report can be an indicator of future hiring activity. If that holds true, April could be another strong month for job growth.

The number of jobs advertised has increased by nearly 1 million since they bottomed out in July 2009, a month after the recession ended. But they are still well below the 4.4 million openings that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

Openings rose sharply in professional and business services, which include accountants, legal services and temporary help agencies. Education and health care and hotels and restaurants also posted big jumps in job postings. Openings in state and local governments, which fell sharply last month, edged up slightly.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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