August's unemployment report -- zero jobs were created during the month -- was pretty discouraging. But if we had learned July's job openings tally prior to the report, it would have been even more surprising. In fact, the most positions were available at the month's end since August 2008 -- before the financial crisis peaked. If openings were so high, why weren't any jobs added?
Here's the job openings chart, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data:
As you can see from the chart, job openings still remain well below their pre-recession level. Prior to 2008, they were regularly above 4.5 million. In July, even at their new post-recession high they are only at 3.23 million. Still, that's a significant improvement over their recessionary low of just 2.11 million in July 2009. In a sense, job openings are about half way back to normal. But at this rate, we won't approach 4.5 million until mid-2013.
The new high hit in July might seem surprising: it indicates that the most jobs were available on the last day of July than in any month prior to September 2008. So why was job creation the weakest in more than a year? Here are a few theories.
1. Layoffs rose significantly. If the new jobs that resulted from these additional openings were offset by additional firings, then net hiring could have still been low. This would be the most troubling possibility, as it could indicate a new trend of firms scaling back.
2. Firms responded to the economy's troubles in August by withdrawing job postings. This would also be bad news for the labor market. So far, however, it doesn't look like August was nearly as terrible a month for firms as the pessimists might have us believe.
3. We haven't seen the full effect of these job openings yet. They could be taking more than a month or two to fill. If that's the case, then we could see hiring rise again over the next few months.
4. A skills mismatch is growing. If the experience of the unemployed doesn't satisfy the desired qualifications of the jobs offered by employers, then the openings will remain unfilled. This would imply that additional training is necessary for more jobless Americans to obtain the positions available.
5. A revision is coming. Finally, the statistics might be bad. Perhaps August really did add a modest number of jobs, well above zero. Alternatively, openings may not have increased by as much as the preliminary number anticipates. We can't be sure which way a revision could change the picture.
Unfortunately, we'll have to keep watching the labor market to see which theory is correct. But seeing openings hit a new high in July might provide some reason to be optimistic about hiring this fall.