Workers Gain the Upper Hand As Job Openings Hit Record

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The number of available jobs soared to a new record in April, as did the number of people who quit, suggesting workers are gaining the upper hand in the lagging labor market.

Key Takeaways

  • There were 9.3 million job openings at the end of April, the most in at least two decades.
  • A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April as worker confidence grew.
  • Workers could be gaining the upper hand, as businesses grow increasingly eager for their services, economists say.

There were 9.3 million job openings on the last business day of April, 998,000 more than in March and the most since the data was first collected in December 2000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday. There are 32.4% more job openings now than there were in February 2020, before the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, 4 million people quit their jobs in April—also a record high since at least December 2000—and an indication workers are increasingly confident they’ll be able to find other, possibly better jobs elsewhere, some economists said. The largest jumps in the number of people quitting came at retail stores (106,000), and in the sectors for professional and business services (94,000), and transportation, warehousing, and utilities (49,000).

Together, the figures tell a story of a shifting job market where businesses eager to capitalize on the economy’s stimulus-fueled recovery from the pandemic increasingly need workers. Layoffs fell to a record low of 1.4 million in April, and many businesses have begun to raise wages in order to attract—and keep—employees. But it’s not proving to be enough. A record 48% of small business owners said they had unfilled job openings in May, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which has now reported new record highs for four straight months. 

“This labor shortages issue is two-fold for businesses—it’s difficult to get workers in the door but it’s also hard to keep them,” Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor, wrote on Twitter. “Unclear exactly what is driving elevated quits, but that’s a double-whammy for employers.”

The job market has yet to match the explosive growth seen elsewhere in the economy, with gross domestic product, inflation, consumer spending, and consumer saving all surging so far this year. Hiring has slowed since an initial burst last summer followed the loss of 22.4 million jobs in the first months of the pandemic. The U.S. added 559,000 people to payrolls in May, well below economists’ expectations for the second straight month, and there are still 7.6 million fewer jobs than there were in February 2020. 

Theories about why jobs are going unfilled have been plentiful—expanded federal unemployment insurance benefits, anxieties about the pandemic, an inability to find childcare, or even workers retiring or reconsidering their career choices all might be playing a role. 

“Employers, employees, and job seekers will all need to sort out what they want in the future,” wrote Nick Bunker, North American economic research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab, in a commentary. “Given the tightness of the labor market, employees and job seekers may have a stronger hand right now.”