WASHINGTON - Finding a job got much tougher last year, as the number of available openings fell by nearly one-quarter.
At the same time, the unemployed population soared by more than one-third, leaving more laid-off workers competing for fewer jobs. All told, there were 6.1 unemployed workers in December, on average, for every available position, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday.
That's a sharp increase from 3.4 jobless workers per opening in December 2008, and much worse than the 1.7 unemployed people per opening in December 2007, when the recession began.
The economy grew in the second half of last year, and gross domestic product, the broadest measure of output, rose by a healthy 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter. That should lead to more hiring, but employers are reluctant to add jobs. Many companies are unsure about whether the recovery will continue, economists say, and how health care reform and other government policies will affect them.
"No business hires into uncertainty, and right now there's too much uncertainty in the markets," said Harry Griendling, CEO of DoubleStar Inc., a consulting firm specializing in recruitment.
Much of the economy's recent growth stems from government stimulus and one-time factors such as restocking of inventories. As those supports evaporate, analysts expect the economy to grow at a slower pace.
Businesses slashed wholesale inventories sharply in December, a much weaker showing than expected and a troubling sign that companies are still too pessimistic about the economy to begin restocking shelves on a sustained basis.
Economists believe the country won't be in a sustained recovery until businesses begin restocking their depleted shelves, which will mean higher orders to factories and increased demand for manufacturing workers.