WASHINGTON — U.S. companies in March posted the highest number of job openings in nearly four years, a sign that hiring could strengthen in the coming months after slowing this spring.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised 3.74 million job openings in March. That’s up from a revised 3.57 million in February. The March figure was the highest since July 2008, just before the financial crisis erupted that fall.
Also, small business owners recovered some of their optimism during April, but they’re still wary about the economy.
The National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday that its index of small business optimism rose 2 points last month, bringing it to 94.5. That makes up for the 2 points lost in March, but only returns the index to its February 2011 level. William Dunkelberg, the NFIB’s chief economist, still classifies the reading as weak.
Dunkelberg said owners’ plans to hire rose during April. And he said a greater number of small companies reported higher sales and profits.
But he noted that news about the U.S. economy is bad — the government reported that gross domestic product growth slowed to an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the first quarter, from 3 percent in the final three months of 2011. And Europe’s debt crisis still shows no signs of easing. Also, inflation could become more of a worry because more NFIB members say they’ve raised their prices in the last three months.
Economists have cited owners’ unease about the economy as a reason for the slow growth in jobs this year. The Labor Department said Friday that 115,000 jobs were created last month, the fewest since October.
“Most likely, there will be only small improvements on Main Street in optimism or hiring and spending this year,” Dunkelberg said in a statement.
The index was compiled from a survey of 1,817 NFIB members. The group represents and lobbies on behalf of 350,000 business owners.
The increase in job openings reported by the Labor Department suggests that weaker hiring gains in March and April could be temporary. It usually takes one to three months for employers to fill openings.
Even with the increase, roughly 12.7 million people were unemployed in March. That means an average of 3.4 people competed for each open job. That’s far better than the nearly 7-to-1 ratio when the recession ended. In a healthy job market, the ratio is usually around 2 to 1.
Last week the government said employers added just 115,000 jobs in April and 154,000 in March. That was a sharp decline from December through February, when the economy added an average of 252,000 jobs per month.
Some of the slowdown in job growth in March and April may reflect a payback for unusually warm winter, analysts have said. The warmer weather probably exaggerated job growth in the winter months with early hiring and is now making the spring gains look smaller.
Tuesday’s report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTs, showed that more people quit their jobs in March.
More quits are a good sign because most people quit in order to move to a new job. Rising quits suggest workers are finding more opportunities in the job market.