The Good (and Bad) News With the Latest Job Openings Survey

Published on Feb 8, 2012

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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New data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), released this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, offers some good (and not-so-good) news about the economy.

First, the good news: The number of unemployed persons per job opening sank at the end of December to a post-recession low. The ratio stands at 3.9, down from a high of 6.1 when the recession ended in June 2009.

Now for the discouraging news that The Wall Street Journal highlighted: The rate of churn in the job market — workers leaving their jobs for another — is not nearly as high it was before the recession, when the economy was much healthier. According to the BLS, “Quits tend to rise when there is a perception that jobs are available and tend to fall when there is a perception that jobs are scarce.” (See this PDF for more charts and notes).

In December, the number of quits was 1.9 million, down from 2.8 million in December 2007. In other words, workers are still risk-averse.

From Ben Casselman in the Journal:

Churn plays an important role as a sort of economic lubricant, helping to move workers into jobs where they are a good fit, and ultimately reallocating the best workers to the best companies, improving economic efficiency. The U.S. has long had high levels of job turnover relative to other developed nations, which economists consider an important advantage.

Even before the recession, however, there were signs that job turnover was slowing in the U.S. Economists aren’t sure why, although the reason may be partly demographic; people tend to change jobs more frequently when they are young, so as the population ages, churn is likely to decline.

Further, the BLS reported that the number of jobs openings increased to nearly 3.4 million, 39% more than at the end of the recession in June 2009. So openings are way up — not as high as they were pre-recession, but still up. Yet hiring has not followed (it’s only up 12%), a signal that employers are hesitant to pull the trigger or there’s a structural mismatch that we’ve written about often in this space.

Note that JOLTS data is subject to change. Openings from 2009 to 2010 were recently revised downward, as Mike Konczal noted in this post at New Deal 2.0. The smaller number of job openings than the BLS originally reported didn’t help proponents of structural employment.