CHARTS: One Jobs Number That's Back to Normal

Why the labor market looks tight, when really it's anything but.

The unemployment rate is still high, but numbers on both job openings and hirings are encouraging.

The unemployment rate is still high, but numbers on both job openings and hirings are encouraging.

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U.S. employers had 3.8 million job openings as of May 31 and made 4.4 million hires in June, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. The figures represent slight increases from April. Yet while job openings and hires are both improving, they have been doing so at very different speeds, which is a troubling signal about the health of the labor market.

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During the course of the recovery, job openings (represented by the blue line in the below chart) have been steadily climbing at a much faster rate than hires (the red line).

More openings mean more opportunities to work, but all of that potential means nothing for job growth if hires aren't picking up similarly. And because of these dynamics, one measure of labor market health has returned to where it was when the labor market was much stronger, even if the reality is far different.

The number of hires per job opening shows how difficult it is for an employer to find a worker. At the height of the jobs crisis, there were nearly 1.8 hires for every counted job opening, indicating that employers who needed workers found them easily. Today, there are fewer than 1.2, roughly one-third lower than when the labor market was at its worst. This would normally indicate a tighter, healthier labor market, as it means employers have to compete a bit more to find workers, who in turn have more job options.

It's a little-scrutinized figure, but it illustrates one of the more troubling aspects of the current job market: by this measure, the job market looks much better than it actually is. The last time the number of hires per opening was this low, it was 2007, and the unemployment rate was around 4.5 percent.

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"If the labor market is tight, in good condition like it was then, it's harder for companies to fill positions," explains Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at the Conference Board. "If there are many hires relative to job openings, then that means that it is easy and quick to fill a position."

It makes sense that, immediately post-recession, the number of hires per opening spiked. With lots of people out of work and relatively few openings, those employers that were looking to hire had a large pool of eager applicants. That pool has diminished, while at the same time employers are now more willing to grow their payrolls.

Still, things haven't really improved. The unemployment rate is still quite high, at 7.6 percent, and wages are not gaining much ground. The labor market, in other words, is not all that tight.

All of which means that the low number of hires in light of job openings may simply point to a skills gap that many employers have bemoaned. The manufacturing industry has for years been saying it has an increasing lack of skilled workers.

It's not just business that claims a lack of trained workers; Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, last month told Businessweek that America's skills gap "has nearly reached a crisis point."

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There's reason to think the problem will continue. A recent study from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce predicted a shortage of 5 million workers by 2020, due to a lack of education and training.

But not everyone is convinced. Economists remain divided on the subject of how much of a skills gap there truly is. In a much-read 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, called the skills gap an "illusion." Instead he places the blame on employers who are unwilling to train workers, asking too much of candidates, and offering unattractive wages.

Levanon agrees. In his opinion, the skills gap explanation only goes so far; employers may be too picky, he says, and they may also post openings without being as motivated to hire as they once were. To him, the biggest evidence is that the skills gap has become a popular complaint among employers only recently.