Workers Are Still in High Demand, Department of Labor Reports

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Job openings last month remained near record levels, and the number of workers voluntarily leaving their positions increased, the Labor Department said on Tuesday.

The data, released as part of the agency’s monthly report on job openings, layoffs and quitting, serve as indicators of how much demand there is for workers in the U.S. economy and the extent to which employers are still struggling with labor shortages months after the economy began recovering from the pandemic’s worst damage.

There were about 11.3 million job openings in February, essentially the same as the month before and down a little from a record in December, though the number of hires overall edged up by 263,000 last month, to about 6.7 million.

After falling during the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, the rates at which so-called prime-age workers — those aged 25 to 54 — are working or seeking work has rallied back to prepandemic levels. Yet with the economy growing faster than in decades, demand for labor has outpaced the availability of workers — at least at the wages and benefits employers are offering.

There are still roughly three million or so people who have not returned to the work force, according to the government data.

“Looking at how poorly our labor force has grown so far this year, if companies want to win the war for talent they need to engage the people who may not be actively seeking work right now, or be the first option people see when they do return,” Ron Hetrick, a senior economist at Emsi Burning Glass, a data and research company, wrote in a note.

That echoes the sentiment of many unions and labor activists, who have been saying that even though wage growth has picked up, people aren’t feeling valued enough by employers. It’s led to fresh questions about how bosses might get to know the “love language” of their hires and find sometimes unconventional ways to show them that they care. There are also more straightforward requests: Several progressive economists have noted that employers could, for instance, take some jobs generally expected to be low-wage — such as fast food service and cashiers — and entice workers by offering higher pay and better benefits.

Large public companies and small businesses alike often say that they have already substantially raised pay from before the pandemic and that with inflation raging at highs unseen since the early 1980s, raw material and other costs have made business more difficult. An expensive surge in commodity markets suggests that price increases for food and energy could worsen, especially if firms raise prices further.

Still, despite widespread frustration with inflation and shortages of some products and materials, some surveys suggest businesses are becoming more optimistic about the future. The MetLife and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index recently reached a pandemic-era high, with about three in five of the small business owners surveyed saying their business is in good health.