Job openings fell slightly in May as demand for workers remained near record highs, according to data released Wednesday by the Labor Department, even amid growing concerns of a potential recession.
The number of open jobs listed in the U.S. on the final business day of May totaled 11.3 million, dropping from 11.7 million in April after seasonal adjustments. Though job openings fell in May, hires, layoffs and quits stayed roughly even with their April numbers, according to the May Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report.
The JOLTS report showed a labor market still stacked strongly for workers in May, a month when the U.S. added 390,000 jobs and saw the jobless rate hold strong at 3.6 percent. Despite the decline in job openings, there were still almost two open gigs for each unemployed American.
That mismatch can give workers many opportunities to find new jobs with better compensation and career opportunities than their current ones.
“This is not what a recession looks like. The May 2022 JOLTS data obviously lags what’s happening in the labor market presently, but all signs are that it remains strong,” wrote Nick Bunker, research director at Indeed.com, in a Wednesday analysis.
“If the labor market were quickly and suddenly taking a downturn, we would see employers’ demand for new hires drop and their willingness to let workers go increase. For now, we aren’t seeing a sudden move in either direction.”
Businesses hired roughly 6.5 million workers and lost 6 million in May, both in line with April totals. The percentage of the workers who quit their jobs in May fell to 2.8 percent, just 0.1 percentage points from a record high of 2.9 percent set earlier this year.
With ample jobs available and people still eager to leave in search of better work, businesses have avoided laying off employees over fears they could be hard to replace. Roughly 1.4 million workers were laid off in May, slightly higher than April’s total of 1.3 million. But the percentage of the workforce laid off by their employers held even at 0.9 percent, which is below pre-pandemic levels.
“Despite continued headlines about layoffs, particularly in the tech sector, the layoff rate remains low,” Bunker explained. “This is the 15th straight month that the layoff rate has been below its pre-pandemic bottom.”
The steady strength of the U.S. job market helped propel a rapid recovery from the depths of the COVID-19 recession through much of 2020 and 2021. The U.S. is fewer than 1 million new jobs away from replacing the 21 million jobs lost to the onset of the pandemic, and the speed of the pandemic recovery has helped fuel rapid wage growth, particularly for low-earning workers.
Even so, many economists — including Federal Reserve officials — fear the strength of the job market could add further fuel to inflation already at four-decade highs. While steady job gains are good for the economy, the intense competition for workers has made it difficult for many firms to stay adequately staffed and keep up with both higher wage demands and rising prices.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and many economists are hopeful that higher interest rates and the fading effects of fiscal stimulus can help reduce job openings — and the pressure they put on wages — without wiping out job gains.
The Fed has boosted its baseline interest rate range by 1.5 percentage points from near-zero levels in January and is expected to hike by another 2 percentage points by the end of the year. Higher interest rates are meant to reduce inflation by slowing the economy enough to force businesses to stop raising prices and wages.
Even so, he has acknowledged it will be difficult for the Fed to avoid slowing down the labor market into a standstill as the central bank boosts interest rates to fight inflation.
“The labor market conditions [Powell] has described as ‘extremely, historically’ tight and ‘unsustainably hot’ persisted in May,” wrote Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, in a Wednesday analysis.
“Employers are hanging onto the workers they have in a tight labor market where replacing them is unusually costly.”
The June jobs report, set to be released Friday, will give a most recent view into how well the labor market has held up amid Fed rate hikes. Economists expect the U.S. to have added roughly 268,000 jobs last month, according to consensus estimates.
“There will be a time when the US labor market takes a downturn, jobs are shed at a higher rate, and workers stop quitting their jobs. But that time has yet to come. The labor market remains very tight and very hot. That may change, but it hasn’t yet,” Bunker wrote.