By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job openings fell slightly in April, but a surge in hiring to a record high suggested strong demand for labor before a recent escalation in trade tensions that was partly blamed for a sharp slowdown in employment growth last month.
The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS report from the Labor Department on Monday also showed an uptick in layoffs, though they remained at historically low levels.
Trade tensions between the United States and China worsened following a move by President Donald Trump in early May to impose additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting retaliation by Beijing.
A tariff on all goods from Mexico to force authorities in that country to stop immigrants from Central America from crossing the border into the United States was averted after the two nations struck an 11th hour agreement late on Friday.
"The April JOLTS report probably is not the most useful indicator about current labor market conditions," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. "But for what it's worth, the JOLTS data show that conditions in the labor market generally remained favorable as of April."
Job openings, a measure of labor demand, slipped to a seasonally adjusted 7.4 million from 7.5 million in March, the government said. The job openings rate was unchanged at 4.7%. Hiring jumped by 240,000 jobs in April to 5.9 million, the highest level since the government started tracking the series in 2000. The hiring rate increased to 3.9% from 3.8% in March.
The economy created only 75,000 jobs in May after adding 224,000 positions in April, the government reported last Friday. The unemployment rate was unchanged near a 50-year low of 3.6%.
QUITS RATE STEADY
Job openings have been trending sideways since hitting an all-time high of 7.6 million in November. Some economists viewed this as a sign that the labor market was slowing, regardless of the impact of the trade fights on hiring decisions by companies.
"The lack of improvement in job openings points to demand for labor leveling off and suggests that the slowdown in hiring evidenced in Friday’s payroll report was not a blip," said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"While today’s report is consistent with some cooling in hiring, the labor market is hardly falling off the rails."
Vacancies in the federal government increased by 22,000 jobs in April. But job openings decreased by 172,000 in the professional and business services sector. The increase in hiring was concentrated in the private sector, with employers in the real estate and rental and leasing industries filling 34,000 vacancies in April.
The number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs was little changed at 3.5 million in April, keeping the quits rate at 2.3% for 11 consecutive months. The quits rate is viewed by policymakers and economists as a measure of job market confidence.
Layoffs edged up in April, lifting the layoffs rate to 1.2% from 1.1% in the prior month. Layoffs increased in the real estate and rental and leasing industry.
"While these data obviously precede the May payroll report, they do show that there was no signs of labor market demand beginning to fade," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York. "We think payroll growth will bounce back in June."
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Susan Thomas and Andrea Ricci)