Job Openings Fell Slightly in January; Layoffs Rose

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Demand for workers let up slightly in January, a possible sign that employers are gradually easing off their frenetic pace of hiring even as the job market remains strong.

There were 10.8 million job openings, a moderate decrease from 11.2 million on the last day of December, the Labor Department reported Wednesday in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, known as JOLTS.

The total number of open jobs per available unemployed worker — a figure that the Federal Reserve has been watching closely as it tries to cool the job market and ease inflation — was relatively unchanged at 1.9.

Still, although employers have proved remarkably resilient in the face of the Fed’s interest rate increases, the drop in open positions is the latest indication that the once red-hot labor market is slowly cooling. Some industries that had shown unexpected strength recorded notable declines in open positions, including construction, where job openings fell by 240,000. Even leisure and hospitality businesses, like restaurants and bars, which have been trying to adjust to unrelenting demand, had slightly fewer open positions.

“Job openings remain pretty sky high in January,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter. “But this report finally points to the slowdown in the labor market that many of us on the front line of the labor market have been observing.”

An open question is whether the slowdown in the job market is sufficient for policymakers. Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, made clear on Tuesday that recent reports showing the persistent strength of the labor market could require a more robust response from central bankers.

Matthew Martin, an economist at Oxford Economics, said in a research note on Wednesday: “While the January JOLTS report shows job openings are heading in the right direction for the Fed, the decline is far too modest to convince that labor market conditions are cooling enough to bring down inflation.”

A clearer picture of the job market will come on Friday, when the Labor Department releases employment data for February.

Other measures in the report on Wednesday also suggested that the labor market was gently settling into a more normal state. Layoffs, which have been extraordinarily low outside of some high-profile companies mostly in the tech sector, rose by 241,000, to 1.7 million. That is the highest number since December 2020, when a winter wave of Covid-19 cases swept across the country and jolted the economy anew.

The increase was driven by a surge of layoffs in the professional and business services sector, which includes advertising, accounting and architectural businesses. The rise in layoffs overall was heavily concentrated in the South.

The number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs, which has been elevated as workers continue seek — and find — higher-paying jobs, fell in January by 207,000, to 3.9 million. The one-month drop was the largest since May, adding to the sense that employees are losing some of their power and job security that had characterized the pandemic era.

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.