WASHINGTON — U.S. job openings dropped in October but remained high, a sign that businesses became slightly less needy for workers as the Federal Reserve ramps up interest rates in an effort to cool the economy.
Employers posted 10.3 million job vacancies in October, down from 10.7 million in September, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Even with the drop, openings were slightly lower in August, when they dipped below 10.3 million before rebounding the following month.
The number of people quitting their jobs also slipped in October, to 4 million from 4.1 million.
The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring the figures on job openings and quits for signals about the strength of the job market. The Fed is seeking to pull off a delicate task by slowing hiring and the broader economy to cool inflation, but not so much as to cause a recession.
While more job openings are a benefit for those seeking work, Fed officials would like to see the number of openings fall. That’s because fewer openings would indicate less competition between businesses to find and keep workers, reducing pressure on them to raise wages.
The number of open jobs dropped last month in construction, manufacturing, professional services such as architecture and engineering, and health care. They rose in financial services and remained high for restaurants, bars, and hotels.
“The labor market is cooling (what the Fed wants) but it is far from cold,” Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in an email.
Fed officials would also like to see the number of people quitting decline. When workers quit, they typically do so for a new, higher-paying job. Since the pandemic, people who have left one job for a new one have been getting historically large wage increases.
Many businesses then pass on the higher labor costs to customers through price increases, fueling inflation.
The Fed would like to slow — though not eliminate — wage gains, so it is hoping that its rate hikes will bring down the number of jobs that companies advertise.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell is scheduled to speak about inflation and the labor market in a highly-anticipated speech Wednesday afternoon. Wall Street traders in particular will watch his speech closely for any signs he may give of how much further the Fed will raise interest rates.
Powell’s appearance comes two days before the U.S. releases critical employment data for November.
The Fed has hiked its benchmark interest rate six times this year to a range of 3.75% to 4%, the highest in about 15 years, in a bid to quell rampant inflation. Prices have soared 7.7% in the past year, near the highest in four decades. The Fed typically seeks to slow price increases by weakening the economy and pushing up unemployment, which reduces spending and often brings down inflation.
However, with job openings so high — they hit a two-decade record of 11.9 million in March — many Fed officials hope they can bring down wage increases and inflation by sharply reducing openings, without causing layoffs to rise significantly. Many economists are skeptical that such an approach can succeed, because historically layoffs have also risen when job openings have gone down.
Wednesday’s report — known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey — provides greater detail about the labor market, while the monthly jobs report on Friday includes the unemployment rate and the number of jobs added or lost each month.