WASHINGTON — Finding a job got much tougher last year, as the number of available openings fell by nearly one quarter.
At the same time, the unemployed population soared by more than one-third, leaving more laid-off workers competing for fewer jobs.
All told, there were 6.1 unemployed workers in December, on average, for every available position, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday.
That's a sharp increase from 3.4 jobless workers per opening in December of 2008, and much worse than the 1.7 unemployed people per opening in December 2007, when the recession began.
The economy grew in the second half of last year and gross domestic product, the broadest measure of output, rose by a healthy 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter.
That should lead to more hiring, but employers are reluctant to add jobs. Many companies are unsure about whether the recovery will continue, economists say, and how health care reform and other government policies will affect them.
"No business hires into uncertainty and right now there's too much uncertainty in the markets," said Harry Griendling, CEO of DoubleStar Inc., a consulting firm specializing in recruitment.
Much of the economy's recent growth stems from government stimulus and one-time factors such as restocking of inventories. As those supports evaporate, many analysts expect the economy to grow at a slower pace.
"Businesses can't look forward a quarter or two and say, 'I'm definitely going to be growing,'" Griendling said.
There were 2.5 million jobs available at the end of December, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey. That includes all jobs publicly listed by companies and government agencies.
That may seem like a lot given the severity of the recession, but that's down from 3.2 million in December 2008, a drop of 22.5 percent. And it's way below the 4.8 million openings that existed in June 2007, the peak reached before the recession.
The drop is a slight improvement from the 26.4 percent annual decline experienced in 2008.
The picture eased slightly in December from the previous month, as available jobs increased by about 60,000 from November. December's ratio of 6.1 unemployed workers per job was better than November's 6.3, the highest on records dating from 2001.
As a result of the uncertainty, many companies are hiring temporary workers rather than creating permanent jobs, Griendling said.
But the Labor Department's survey on job openings doesn't include temporary agency jobs. Temp jobs have been one of the job markets' few bright spots recently, adding about 250,000 jobs in the past four months.
Small businesses, which create most of the new jobs in the United States, are still reluctant to hire, according to a survey released Tuesday by the National Federation of Independent Business.
More small companies plan to cut workers in the next three months than add them, the NFIB's report said. Only 10 percent of small firms had jobs available last month, the same as December, but far below the 21 percent with open jobs in December 2007, when the recession began.
The Labor Department's report on job openings shows that even in a recession, millions of Americans are hired and fired. Employers hired more than 4 million people in December, the report said, while about 4.2 million were laid off, fired or quit.
The gap between those two figures is roughly equivalent to the net loss of 150,000 jobs in December that the Labor Department reported last week.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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