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 U.S. 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.
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.
"In light of that uncertainty, I don't think anybody's rushing to add large numbers of employees," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at investment firm Miller Tabak.
Still, the so-called JOLTS 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.