By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job openings increased in March to the highest level in eight months and layoffs continued to decline, indicating the labor market remains fairly robust despite April's slowdown in employment gains.
The firmer labor market tone was also evident in another report on Tuesday, which showed small businesses increasingly having trouble finding qualified workers to fill open positions.
"The data generally remain upbeat and it does not look like there has been any material weakening in the health of the labor market lately," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
Job openings, a measure of labor demand, rose 149,000 to a seasonally adjusted 5.8 million, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report. That was the highest reading since July.
The gain lifted the jobs openings rate to 3.9 percent, re-testing its post-recession high, from 3.8 percent in February.
Hiring, however, fell 218,000 to 5.3 million in March, suggesting employers are probably not finding qualified workers for the open positions. The hiring rate slipped to 3.7 percent from 3.8 percent in February.
The JOLTS report is one of the job market metrics on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's so-called dashboard and continues to suggest the labor market is tightening.
But labor market strength alone is insufficient to spur the Fed to raise interest rates before the end of the year, given slow economic growth and benign inflation. The Fed raised its benchmark overnight interest rate in December for the first time in nearly a decade.
Other details of the JOLTS report were fairly upbeat, also indicating that a deceleration in hiring last month probably did not signal a cooling in the jobs market.
The government reported last Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased 160,000 in April, the smallest gain in seven months, after advancing by 208,000 jobs in March. The unemployment was unchanged at 5 percent in April.
The JOLTS report showed a further decline in layoffs, while at the same time 2.98 million Americans quit their jobs voluntarily in March, a sign of confidence in the labor market. The quits rate was unchanged at 2.1 percent.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data.
SKILLED WORKER SHORTAGE
In a separate report, the National Federation of Independent Business said small businesses continued to report a shortage of qualified workers to fill job openings, with some saying they had either raised or planned to increase wages to attract and retain employees.
The share of small businesses reporting job openings they could not fill jumped in April, revisiting cycle highs. There was also an increase in the proportion of small business owners saying that the quality of labor was their biggest concern.
"With labor market slack diminishing, we expect to see a marked acceleration in wage growth soon," said Steve Murphy, a U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
In March, the number of unemployed job seekers per open job, a measure of labor market slack, was little changed at 1.38.
Professional and business services job openings increased 124,000 in March. There were also gains in transportation, warehousing and utilities, and nondurable goods manufacturing. Job openings decreased 80,000 in retail trade. There were declines in educational services and wholesale trade.
At least 50,000 construction workers voluntarily quit their jobs in March. Quits decreased in arts, entertainment and recreation, which saw an increase in layoffs in March.
Mining and logging layoffs slowed in March, an encouraging sign for a sector that has seen a wave of job losses since late 2014 when oil prices started their downward spiral.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)