The U.S. had more job openings this spring than unemployed Americans. For the first time since such record-keeping began in 2000, the number of available positions exceeded the number of job seekers, the Labor Department said Tuesday, a shift that is rippling across the economy and affecting the behavior of employers and workers. U.S. job openings rose to a seasonally adjusted 6.7 million at the end of April, a record high, and more than the 6.3 million Americans who were unemployed during the month. Openings had exceeded the available labor pool beginning in March, according to revised figures released Tuesday. The figures are the latest sign the U.S. is facing a historically tight labor market. The jobless rate ticked down further in May to a seasonally adjusted 3.8%, the lowest since April 2000, the Labor Department said last week. The last time the rate was lower was in 1969, when young men were being drafted into the Vietnam War. The labor market is forcing employers to rethink their approach to hiring, said Terri Greeno, owner of an Express Employment Professionals office in Crystal Lake, Ill. She is asking clients if they are being realistic in their demands for workers with clean criminal histories and higher levels of education. “Is it a health and safety issue? If not, you have to ask if those demands are really related to the outcome on the job,” Ms. Greeno said. “When the unemployment rate is this low, you’re really competing for workers who already have jobs.” Her staffing firm is taking extra steps to fill light industrial and office jobs, reaching out to 45,000 people it has placed in positions in the past 15 years and asking if friends or family would be willing to take on work. “This is a very tight labor market,” said Adam Kamins, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Most everyone who wants a job has one.” For workers, that’s good news. On the other hand, a tighter labor market presents several challenges to businesses. If they can’t find workers to meet the demand for their products, they can’t help the economy grow. They may instead opt to close the restaurant early or not run a third shift at the factory. Firms may need to pay more to attract workers, and some already are. That raises costs and would cut profit margins if higher prices can’t be passed on to customers. If prices are raised, that stokes stronger inflation, which already has been accelerating in recent months. Federal Reserve policy makers are watching closely. Emergence of worker shortages and stronger inflation could signal the economy is overheating, raising the need to lift interest rates more aggressively than the slow, moderate path they have signaled. For now, the market is opening up possibilities for those who have struggled in recent years. Geremy Mincey, 26 years old, had bounced between temporary jobs since dropping out of college seven years ago, working at factories, fast-food restaurants and even as the mall Easter Bunny. He would often go months between paychecks. Earlier this year, he landed a temporary job as a saw operator at Williams Metals and Welding Alloys in Birmingham, Ala. Last month, the firm asked him to take a full-time position with health benefits and retirement savings. “I feel like I broke the cycle,” he said.
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