WASHINGTON — Job openings climbed in October to the highest level in more than five years, showing employers were looking beyond the budget impasse in Washington amid growing confidence in the economic expansion.
The number of positions waiting to be filled rose by 42,000 to 3.93 million, the most since May 2008, the Labor Department reported Tuesday in Washington. Other figures showed wholesalers boosted stockpiles by the most in two years, another sign that companies were preparing for a pickup in sales.
A report last week showed companies in November followed through on the hiring intentions as payrolls climbed more than projected. The figures on openings, combined with data on hiring and job leavers, are among those tracked by Federal Reserve policy makers, including Janet Yellen, to gauge labor-market strength as they determine when to reduce bond purchases.
“Businesses are looking to fill openings, they recognize the economy is improving and to meet demand they’re going to have to hire more aggressively,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pa. For the Fed, “it’s going to be a close call in December, but they may just wait until 2014″ to begin trimming stimulus, he said.
Some 2.39 million people quit their jobs in October, the most since October 2008 and up from 2.33 million the prior month. The quits rate, which shows the willingness of workers to leave their jobs, was little changed from the prior month at 1.7 percent in October, and was down from a 2.1 percent reading when the recession started six years ago.
A willingness to leave a job shows workers are feeling more confident in finding other employment.
Fed officials are gauging the outlook for the labor market as they consider scaling back their $85 billion-a-month bond- buying program, known as quantitative easing. Policy makers meet Dec. 17-18 in Washington to discuss the future of monetary policy. Yellen, the current vice chairman, is the nominee to succeed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke when his term ends Jan. 31.
The share of economists predicting the Fed will begin to reduce purchases in December doubled after last week’s Labor Department report showed back-to-back monthly payroll gains of 200,000 or more for the first time in almost a year.
The Federal Open Market Committee will probably begin tapering this month, according to 34 percent of economists surveyed by Bloomberg Dec. 6, an increase from 17 percent in a Nov. 8 survey. The share projecting that central bankers would wait until March to make the first cut declined to 40 percent from 53 percent.
The Labor Department’s monthly employment report last week showed the job market continued to make progress in November. Payrolls expanded by 203,000 workers after a 200,000 gain in October. The jobless rate fell to 7 percent, a five-year low, from 7.3 percent in October.
American distributors boosted stockpiles in October by the most in two years as sales improved, figures from the Commerce Department also showed Tuesday. Wholesale inventories climbed 1.4 percent, the most since October 2011, after a 0.5 percent gain in September that was larger than previously estimated. Sales rose 1 percent, the best performance since May.
The jump in stockpiling eased concern that orders would slump this quarter as companies tried to reduce the amount of goods on hand after inventories climbed in the third quarter by the most in 15 years.
“The rise in inventories spread out across a broad swath of goods combined with the solid increase in sales is quite encouraging,” Thomas Simons, an economist at Jefferies in New York, said in a research note. “Today’s report bodes well for further inventory accumulation in Q4, or at the very least a soft landing from the big accumulation in Q3.”
Economists in New York for Barclays raised their tracking estimate of fourth quarter gross domestic product to a 2 percent annualized gain from a previous forecast of 1.7 percent. The world’s largest economy grew at a revised 3.6 percent pace in the third quarter, the most since early 2012, as inventory building contributed 1.7 percentage points to growth.
Tuesday’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover report showed the number of people hired in October decreased to 4.51 million from a 4.63 million as fiscal gridlock in Washington prompted a 16- day partial federal shutdown. The hiring rate fell to 3.3 percent from 3.4 percent in September. The gauge calculates the number of hires during the month divided by the number of employees who worked or received pay during that period.
“With the government shutdown, businesses were a little bit cautious before they brought these people on, but if we believe the November jobs report, they started doing that,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc. in Holland, Pa. “The growth that we’re seeing in openings is an indication for the potential for job growth in the economy.”
The number of total dismissals, which excludes retirements and those who left their job voluntarily, slumped to 1.47 million, the fewest in records going back to December 2000, from 1.76 million in September.
Job openings increased in professional and business services, construction and manufacturing.
In the 12 months ended October, the economy created a net 2 million jobs, representing 53 million hires and 51 million separations.
Doug Neeper, 61, is among those witnessing an improving job market. The Financial Planning and Analysis consultant is a leader at networking group Job Connections in Danville, Calif., near San Francisco. During the downturn, he said his group’s attendance exploded to more than 300 people per gathering, and things have been gradually improving.
“Our meetings are averaging anywhere between 25 to 50 people, very similar to what I experienced when I joined 10 years ago,” Neeper said.
Considering the 11.3 million Americans who were unemployed in October, today’s figures indicate there were almost 2.9 people vying for every opening, up from about 1.8 when the last recession began in December 2007.
Transportation companies are among those adding jobs as holiday retailing shifts online. E-commerce sales are projected to increase between 13 and 15 percent this holiday season, more than three times the 4 percent estimated increase for holiday retail sales, the National Retail Federation said in October, benefitting ground and express carriers.
In November, the transportation and warehousing sector added 30,500 workers, including 8,600 couriers and messengers and 8,400 people in truck transportation. FedEx Corp. was among companies hiring.
“FedEx is increasing hours for existing employees and increasing the workforce with tens of thousands of seasonal positions as needed to maintain outstanding service during the peak holiday season,” the company said in an Oct. 10 news release. “Last year approximately 20,000 seasonal positions were added to the FedEx workforce, and this year we expect seasonal hiring to be higher in response to increasing customer demand.”