Employers advertised fewer jobs in December and cut back on hiring, suggesting many were cautious at the end of the year.
Job openings dropped 4.6 percent in December from November to 3.62 million, the Labor Department said Tuesday. November's openings were revised higher.
Employers hired 4.2 million people, a 4.8 percent drop and the fewest in a year.
One positive sign: Employers cut just 1.57 million jobs, the fewest layoffs on records dating back to 2001.
Still, those looking for work face stiff competition. About 12.2 million people were unemployed in December. That means there were 3.4 unemployed people, on average, competing for each open job. In a healthy economy, the ratio is roughly 2 to 1.
The Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, also known as JOLTS, calculates total hiring, layoffs and quits. That's different from the department's monthly jobs report, which measures the unemployment rate and net hiring. Net hiring is total hiring minus layoffs, quits and other separations.
The JOLTS data will likely be revised significantly next month based on comprehensive tax records. Similar revisions were made to the government's monthly employment report and showed much stronger hiring at the end of last year.
Employers added 196,000 net jobs in December and 157,000 in January. Job gains averaged 200,000 in the three months ending in January, up from a monthly average of 154,000 in the prior three months.
The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a separate survey of households, rose to 7.9 percent last month.
Some employers may have held off from posting jobs or hiring workers in December because of looming tax increases and government spending cuts. Congress and the White House reached a deal on Jan. 1 to prevent income taxes from rising for most Americans and postponed the spending cuts for two months.