U.S. job openings soar to a record-high 6.3 million as companies seek skilled workers

A woman fills out a job application at a job fair in January.
A woman fills out a job application at a job fair in January.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)
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U.S. employers sharply ramped up their demand for workers in January, advertising 6.3 million jobs at the end of the month, the most on records dating back 17 years.

The number of job openings soared 645,000 in January, the Labor Department said Friday. It was the largest one-month increase in 2 1/2 years. The number of people hired ticked up and fewer people quit in January compared with the previous month.

The huge demand for workers comes as the unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1%. The report shows that overall hiring increased by a much smaller amount than job openings, suggesting that employers are having difficulty finding the workers they need. That may raise pressure on companies to increase pay to attract more applicants.


The data could fuel debates about whether a “skills gap” has made it harder for companies to fill open positions. Business groups argue that many jobs — particularly in manufacturing, administrative work and information technology — require greater or different skill sets than in the past, and that not enough workers have them.

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Some economists respond that businesses should offer higher wages if they are truly desperate for more employees. Americans’ paychecks have ticked up a bit in recent years, but by most measures, the gains are still sluggish compared with previous periods when the unemployment rate was this low.

The report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, shows that job openings surged nearly 16% in January compared with a year earlier, yet the number of jobs getting filled rose just 2.3%, to 5.6 million.

In a study released this week, Burning Glass, a labor market analytics firm, found that skills gaps exist in some specific occupations and industries, but for different reasons.

In information technology, for example, there are 17% more jobs open than there are available workers, Burning Glass calculated. That’s partly because demand in relatively new fields, such as cybersecurity and “big data” analysis, have exploded in recent years. Meanwhile, training programs have been slow to ramp up and teach the new, complex skills needed.


Many of those jobs also combine certain skills, such as software development and business analysis skills. Training for such “hybrid jobs” is more complicated and less available than for more straightforward jobs, Burning Glass’ report said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sponsored Burning Glass’ research.

In other cases, employers are undercutting their own efforts. In office and administrative work, there are 5% more jobs open than qualified workers, Burning Glass found.

But many employers demand four-year college degrees for those jobs, narrowing the number of prospective applicants. For example, 37% of job postings for bookkeepers require a college degree, the study said, but just 19% of those who currently work as bookkeepers actually have those degrees.

This “upskilling” accelerated during the slow recovery from the Great Recession, when employers had a much broader pool of workers from which to choose. But with the unemployment rate so low, businesses may have to take a more flexible approach.