Monthly job openings were little changed in January

Workers make brackets for Chevrolet Express Vans at VIA Motors in Orem, Utah.
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Monthly jobs openings — a gauge of the U.S. economy that's closely watched by Fed chair Janet Yellen — were little changed in January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Thursday.

Monthly job openings were at 5.6 million on the last business day in January, the Labor Department said, up slightly from the 5.5 million openings in the previous month.

Over the month, hires and separations were little changed at 5.4 million and 5.3 million, respectively.

The quits rate was little changed at 2 .2 percent as well as the layoffs and discharges rate at 1.1 percent.

More than 3.2 million people quit their jobs in January, the most in nearly 16 years. That is a sign of confidence in the job market, since workers typically quit either when they have another job, or do not but are optimistic they can find one.

More quitting also boosts wages, because most people quit for a new job at higher pay. It also indicates that employers may be recruiting workers from other jobs by offering bigger paychecks.

Even as job openings have fallen slightly in the past year, they remain near the highest levels on records dating back to 2001. That could also push average wages higher: If employers are having trouble filling jobs, they may be forced to pay more.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen regularly points to quit levels as a gauge of labor market health.

"There's job security," Yellen said in a press conference Wednesday. "We're seeing more people who are feeling free to quit their jobs, getting outside offers, looking for other opportunities."

Yellen spoke after the Fed said it was lifting its short-term interest rate for the third time in 15 months.

Total hiring also jumped in January, though that figure remains below pre-recession highs. Employers hired 5.4 million people that month, up 2.6 percent from December.

The government said last week that employers added a net total of 235,000 jobs, after a similarly healthy gain of 238,000 in January. The unemployment rate fell one-tenth to 4.7 percent.

Those figures are net gains after layoffs, quits and retirements are subtracted from overall hiring.

Thursday's data comes from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTs. The report from the Labor Department is a key barometer of economic conditions, measuring job postings in different sectors, and the number of hires and layoffs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.