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Job openings are near an all-time high. How to navigate a career change

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A woman walks by a "Now Hiring" sign outside a store on August 16, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

You don't have to go far to see a "now hiring" sign these days, as certain industries struggle to bounce back amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

For some workers, it may be a good time to change careers.

While millions of Americans are still unemployed, some industries can't hire fast enough to meet demand. The unemployment rate fell slightly to 5.4% in July but remains higher than pre-pandemic. Those claiming unemployment insurance benefits fell to a pandemic-era low of 2.82 million in the week ending Aug. 14, although it is still elevated.

At the same time, job openings surged to an all-time high of 10.1 million at the end of June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the data lags the unemployment report by one month.) That means there's roughly one unemployed person per open job, according to the data.

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But just because there are many jobs open overall doesn't mean that is necessarily the case for your specific industry. Before starting a new job search, or even leaving employment without something else secured, you should do your research on what's going on in your industry, experts say.

"Nationwide, there are two active online applications for every unemployed American right now, but that's not the case everywhere," said Julia Pollak, chief labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

If you're in leisure, hospitality or another service industry, you'll likely have a much easier time finding a job than in other sectors. There's also a premium for remote work right now — some 55% of applicants want a remote job but only 10% of companies offer them, according to Pollak.

Identify what you want in a new job

If you are looking to move jobs, especially in a field where there's a lot of demand for new workers, you likely have more leverage than before the pandemic to negotiate, according to Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at Indeed.

"The pandemic has shifted our perspectives on what's important," he said. "Job seekers have wanted it for a while, and now they're going to get it."

That means that going into a new job, you should be very clear on what you're looking for and do the research to make sure companies align with your needs, be it a higher salary, more vacation time or flexible remote work, according to Wolfe.

In the interview process, he recommends asking questions to ensure the company will give you what you want, especially around greater flexibility for remote work, which is a top characteristic people are looking for.

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"Job seekers have to do their homework," Wolfe said. "Come with your list, ask questions and if they aren't transparent, you will pick up on it."

He added that especially around remote work, some companies aren't sure what their policy will be going forward. Still, by asking in an interview, you can set the stage of what's important to you and gauge the company response.

Who could benefit from labor market slack  

Wages, perks and benefits for certain jobs — mostly entry-level positions that don't require a college education in industries hit hard by the pandemic — are prevalent now as employers struggle to hire.

That tight labor market could benefit some groups more than others, according to Pollak.

For one, teenagers have had lots of luck applying for and securing such jobs for higher than usual wages. To that point, this summer was the best for teenage work since the 1950s.

People who had to drop out of the workforce during the pandemic and haven't worked in a year may also have luck in going back to work now, when some employers are desperate for workers.

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In addition, people looking to change to a job they weren't necessarily qualified for in the past will likely have an easier time making the jump now, given that it's to a high-demand sector, according to Pollak.

"Once you're in a job, and you have experience, then it doesn't matter what you did before," she said. "This could be a stepping stone to better opportunities for many people."

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