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4 million people quit their jobs in April, sparked by confidence they can find better work

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People walk by a Help Wanted sign in the Queens borough of New York City on June 04, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The tight labor market is giving workers renewed confidence in their ability to find a better job, and they're quitting at record rates.

Some 4 million people quit their jobs in April, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary released this week, with the largest exits happening in retail trade; professional and business services; and transportation, warehousing and utilities. Workers most likely to quit live in the South, Midwest and West regions.

"Job seekers have a strong hand in the labor market," says Nick Bunker, an economist with the jobs site Indeed. Across the country, employers are staffing up to prepare for renewed summer activity as vaccination rates increase and Covid-19 case rates go down.

As a result, there's lots of opportunity for job seekers — a record 9.3 million job openings in April — where workers have the upper hand to negotiate for higher pay, more consistent hours or better accommodations. Some workers may realize their current job, or one they picked up during the unemployment crisis, is no longer a good fit, and they're able to move on to something better, Bunker adds.

According to the Labor Department, the largest increases of job openings came in accommodation and food services; other services (ranging from machinery repair to personal care services); and durable goods manufacturing. And according to an Indeed analysis of recent job postings, employers are increasingly hiring for HR jobs to help fill other roles in their company.

Job openings decreased in educational services, and in mining and logging.

Employers struggle to fill new roles

But just over 6 million people were actually hired in April, in line with previous months, with the most activity happening in accommodation and food services, and in federal government. With more openings than people to fill them, "we've snapped back to the pre-pandemic labor market when it comes to difficulty hiring," Bunker says.

The best way employers can get candidates in the door is to raise wages, he says.

One recent Indeed analysis found companies that publicize broad-scale pay increases saw a temporary bump in job search activity, including Amazon's April announcement to raise pay, and Bank of America's statement that it would raise its minimum wage to $25 by 2025.

While there's no way to know how much a bump in search activity leads to actual hires, it does indicate that raising and announcing higher wages can attract job seekers to apply.

Strong hiring demand could benefit workers

Bunker predicts many of the factors holding job seekers back are temporary. Concerns of contracting the virus may abate as vaccination rates rise and cases decline, for example.

Some job search activity may resume in the fall after federally enhanced unemployment benefits expire in September, though Indeed data indicates the share of national job search activity in four states ending federal UI on June 12 — Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri — is actually lower today than it was in late April.

Nationwide, 15.4 million Americans remain on unemployment benefits as of mid-May, including roughly 11.6 million people and their families relying on pandemic-era programs created by the CARES Act.

Bunker also expects more people will be able to return to work in the fall as schools resume in-person learning and child-care facilities continue to reopen: "A lot of these temporary restraints on labor supply might go away, and in the fall we could see a different environment for hiring."

For job seekers on the market, whether they're considering quitting for better work or re-entering the labor force, Bunker suggests candidates take advantage of today's tight labor market: "If you can swing it, it's the best time to do it."

If you recently quit your job for a better one with higher pay, the ability to work remotely or in a different field and would like to share your story, email work reporter Jennifer Liu at jennifer.liu@nbcuni.com.

Check out: 'I'm putting my entire life on hold': How workers are grappling with Covid burnout

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