Economic Report: U.S. job openings fall to a six-month low, but that’s because companies have been hiring

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Job openings in the U.S. fell to a six-month low late in 2017, but only because so many people were hired.

The numbers: The number of job openings in the U.S. fell to a six-month low of 5.88 million in November from 5.93 million in the prior month. The chief reason: Another late-in-the-year hiring surge.

About 5.5 million people were hired and 5.2 million lost their jobs in November, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. The increase in hiring was the second largest during the current eight-and-a-half-year-old expansion. The peak occured a month earlier in October.

The share of people who left jobs on their own, known as the quits rate, was 2.4% among private-sector employees. That number has barely budged in the past year but remains near a post-recession high.

What happened: The decline in job openings took place mostly in a catchall category known as “other services” as well as transportation, warehousing and real estate. Hiring in those areas rose sharply in November.

Builders have been hiring rapidly to keep up with rising construction and the real estate business needs more people to handle increasing sales and rentals.

The biggest increase in job openings in November was in retail, when many firms were preparing for arguably the best holiday shopping season in years. Job openings hit a record high.

Those hires will show up in the December report.

The big picture: Job openings hovered at or near record highs though most of 2017, but they edged lower toward the end of the year. That probably reflected a pickup in hiring ahead of the holiday season.

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Whatever the case, the biggest problem for companies now is a shortage of skilled labor.

The U.S. created more than 2 million jobs in 2017 for the seventh year in a row, reflecting the second biggest hiring streak since World War Two. And that’s pushed the unemployment down to a 17-year low of 4.1%.

There’s still plenty of appetite for new workers, but companies are also shifting more money into investment, and that is likely to include labor-saving devices that boost production without the need for more personnel.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.28%  and Standard & Poor’s SPX, +0.11%  maintained modest gains in early trades.

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