By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
and MARTIN CRUTSINGER
AP economics writers
October 15, 2012
WASHINGTON — U.S. employers advertised slightly fewer jobs in August than July, while they filled the most positions in three months, offering a mixed signal on the job market.
A separate report showed that U.S. wholesalers increased their stockpiles in August and their sales rose for the first time in four months. The gains could provide a boost to the still-weak economy.
The Labor Department said Wednesday that job openings dropped by 32,000 to 3.56 million in August.
July’s openings were also revised lower.
The job market remains very competitive. With 12.5 million people unemployed in August, there were 3.5 unemployed people, on average, competing for each open job. In a healthy economy, that ratio is 2 to 1.
Companies have been filling jobs slowly since the recession ended and often only when absolutely necessary. Total monthly hiring has increased just 15 percent since the Great Recession ended three years ago, even though job openings have risen nearly 63 percent in that same time.
The August report did offer some encouraging signs that the trend could change. Employers hired a total of 4.39 million people in August — the most since May.
And Wednesday’s report on job openings and labor turnover follows a positive report on net hiring in September. That showed the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent for the first time in 3½ years.
Even with the gains, the job market remains weak and unemployment rate is still painfully high at 7.8 percent.
Economists note several reasons why hiring hasn’t kept pace with the increase in job openings.
Applicants are passing on jobs when companies offer lower pay. Some employers are seeing fewer applicants with needed skills in key industries, such as manufacturing and information technology. Businesses are also worried about slower global growth and possible recession in the United States next year if Congress stays deadlocked on pending tax increases and spending cuts.
Roy Sweatman, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Southern Manufacturing Technologies Inc., says it’s “almost impossible” to find skilled machinists to run the computer-assisted equipment in his factories. Southern Manufacturing makes precision components for the aerospace and defense industries.
The company is also worried about big cuts in defense spending, among those set to take place next year if lawmakers can’t reach a deal.
There are eight job openings at the 110-person company. They are being filled only when absolutely necessary.
“We are looking for folks now, but we are doing it with a bit of trepidation,” he said. “I would hate to hire them and then have to let them go next year.”
The Commerce Department said Wednesday that wholesale stockpiles grew 0.5 percent in August after a 0.6 percent increase in July.
Sales at the wholesale level jumped 0.9 percent in August, ending three months of declines. The sales increase was the biggest one-month gain since February.
Total wholesale inventories stood at $487.5 billion. That’s 26.9 percent higher than the post-recession low hit in September 2009.
It would take about five weeks to exhaust the level of stockpiles at the August sales pace. Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics, said the level remains fairly lean, even after the modest increase in inventories over the summer when sales slipped.
Companies typically boost their stockpiles when they anticipate sales will rise in coming months.
Faster restocking helps drive economic growth. When businesses order more goods, it generally leads to more factory production.
Growth has slowed this year, in part because high unemployment and low pay increases have kept U.S. consumers from spending more freely.
Weaker global growth has also dampened demand for U.S. exports.
Many economists believe the U.S. economy grew over the summer at a 2 percent annual rate. That would be only a slight improvement from the tepid 1.3 percent annual growth rate in the April-June quarter.
A stronger job market could help boost growth in the final three months of the year. When more people find jobs, consumer spending typically increases.
Consumer spending accounts for nearly 70 percent of economic activity.