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Rise in job openings hopeful sign before holidays

WASHINGTON — December is generally a bad time to look for work, and even worse now that the unemployment rate is nearing double digits. But there’s reason for some optimism this holiday season.

Job openings are at their highest level in two years, according to new government data. And a private-sector survey predicts the next few months will be the best time for hiring since the financial crisis erupted.

That should come as some comfort to job-seekers, especially after last week’s report that the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November and the economy added a scant 39,000 jobs.

Recruiters say the data, taken together, suggest job hunters should keep plugging away. Yes, it’s a tight labor market and many hiring managers take time off over the holidays. But so do many job-seekers.

“That can work to the advantage of a job-seeker who doesn’t take a break, who really keeps going,” said Jennifer Schramm, a spokesperson for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Analysts say job openings are a good indication of the hiring picture ahead because it can take up to three months to fill most jobs.

Businesses and government advertised nearly 3.4 million jobs at the end of October, up about 12 percent from the previous month, the Labor Department said Tuesday in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey.

That reverses two months of declines and is the highest total since August 2008, just before the financial crisis intensified.

Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse, said the report echoes other recent data showing that the economy is improving. Factories are busier, retail spending is up, and consumer confidence is also rising. Those improvements will likely translate into more hiring soon, he said.

The rise in the unemployment rate “should turn out to be just a bump in the jobs recovery road,” Basile added.

Overall, the number of advertised jobs has increased by about 1 million, or 44 percent, since the low point of July 2009, a month after the recession ended. But openings are still far below the 4.4 million advertised in December in 2007, when the recession began.

A new survey by staffing company Manpower Inc. suggests businesses are ready to pick up the pace. Manpower’s U.S. hiring index rose to 9 percent for the January-March quarter of 2011, from 5 percent in the October-December quarter of 2010.

That’s the highest in two years, but still far below the 20 percent that the index averaged from 2003 to 2007.

The survey suggests the strongest hiring markets will be in Baton Rouge, La, Seattle and Milwaukee.

In Baton Rouge, companies in manufacturing, construction, retail, professional and business services, financial services, transportation and utilities, and restaurants and hotels plan to add jobs, Manpower said.

The same industries, except manufacturing and financial services, expect to add jobs in Seattle. Milwaukee will also add jobs in most of the same industries, except construction and financial services, Manpower said.

“The job market may be getting ready to shift into second gear,” Jonas Prising, Manpower’s president of the Americas.

Still, the unemployment rate won’t return to a healthy level until the number of jobs created greatly outweighs the pace of layoffs. The gap remains too narrow, with employers hiring about 4.2 million people in October while 4.04 million people were laid off, fired or quit that month, according to the JOLTS report.

That helps explain why the jobless rate is falling in fewer U.S. cities. Only 200 of the nation’s 372 largest cities saw declines in October, down from 321 the previous month, the Labor Department said in a separate report.

Competition for jobs is tough, but improving. There were, on average, 4.4 unemployed workers for each available job in October. That’s down from 4.9 in September and the lowest since January 2009.

But it has a long way to go to get back to the 1.8 ratio from December 2007.

The private sector increased its help-wanted advertisements by the most in more than four years in October, the JOLTS report showed.

The gains occurred in a range of industries: Openings in retail rose by nearly 6 percent, while openings in professional and business services, a category that includes temporary jobs, soared by 33 percent.

Advertised jobs increased by 19 percent in education and health services and by almost 14 percent in hotels and restaurants, the department’s report said.