Job Openings Rose in September Despite Higher Interest Rates

The nation’s extreme shortage of job seekers worsened in September, the Labor Department reported Tuesday, after easing the previous month.

Employers had 10.7 million positions open as summer ended, up from 10.3 million in August. That leaves roughly 1.9 posted jobs for every unemployed worker, a persistently high ratio even as the economy appears to be decelerating because the Federal Reserve is working to quell inflation.

Pulling down job postings — or holding off on new ones — is usually the first step that employers take as the economy weakens, in hopes that hiring more conservatively could avoid the need to lay people off later. But the labor market has been slow to respond to rising interest rates, even as other indicators point toward an impending recession.

The report is the last piece of significant economic data to land before policymakers at the Fed meet on Wednesday, and only reinforces the likely outcome. Most analysts expect the central bank to raise its benchmark interest rate by 0.75 percent, even if job openings tumbled in Tuesday’s Labor Department report.

“What if all the JOLTS dropped to zero?” said Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, using shorthand for the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. “I don’t think that would cause them to not go 75 basis points, because they’re focused on inflation. They’ve already said there’s going to be some pain, and pain is code for the labor market.”

The number of open jobs is consistent with surveys of businesses, which have continued to report difficulty hiring. The National Federation of Independent Business found in its September survey that 23 percent of its members planned to create new jobs in the next three months, and of those, 89 percent said they had few qualified applicants.

The jump in job openings was largely due to huge increases at hotels and restaurants, which added 215,000 postings. And the health care and social assistance sector was looking for 115,000 more workers than the previous month, reaching 2.1 million openings total, the highest level on record.

At the same time, the number of people hired declined to about 6.1 million, continuing a downward slide that began this spring. That could be a consequence of employers having a tougher time finding qualified applicants, or deciding to hold positions open longer as they wait for the economic dust to settle.

The number of people quitting their jobs voluntarily, usually a sign that workers have confidence they’ll be able to find a better one, declined slightly to about 4.1 million. As a share of total employment, that was about level with recent months, but down from record highs at the end of 2021.

Inflation has forced some workers to find ways to increase their earnings — whether by asking for raises or finding other jobs. At the same time, fear of a looming recession has prompted some workers to stay put unless they have another offer in hand.

Quitting fell most in industries that are facing the strongest headwinds from higher interest rates and weakening consumer spending, including construction, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing.

The number of layoffs also declined from recent months. That’s in line with the weekly reports of initial claims for unemployment insurance, which have remained near record lows. After hiring aggressively over the past year — and often at higher salaries — employers may be less eager to let people go, even as business wavers.

An August survey of hiring managers by the polling firm Morning Consult found that about 57 percent of respondents said they were retaining more employees than they normally would because of how difficult it was to replace people. That may lead to a reversal of the typical “last-in, first-out” pattern that has been common in other downturns.

“If you spent a lot of money attracting workers, you don’t want to let them go right away, because then all that money just goes down the drain,” Ms. Peterson said. “Six months later you have to find them again, and they might be asking for a different asking price. You want to keep all your talent, but if you think about it, it’s very expensive to let go of those workers you just hired and invested a lot in.”

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