By: Sarah Murray of the Wall Street Journal

More U.S. workers quit their jobs than were laid off in March, the second month in a row this occurred and a sign of employees’ growing confidence that more positions are becoming available in a slowly recovering job market.

Nearly 1.9 million employees quit in March compared with more than 1.8 million who were laid-off or discharged, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Meanwhile, the number of hires rose to a seasonally adjusted 4.2 million in March from 4 million in February.

February marked the first month since November 2008 when the number who quit was larger than the number who were laid off or discharged.

“The most positive thing, certainly, is hiring activity finally started to pick up,” said Harm Bandholz, a UniCredit Research economist. But “companies are still very cautious.”

The Labor Department noted that, “The quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to change jobs.” In deep recessions, when work is tough to find, the number of those quitting declines as employees grow less willingly to risk trying to switch jobs. Meanwhile, layoffs rise as employers cut back their workforce. As hiring starts to improve, people become more confident about their ability to leave their current job and find another and layoffs begin to decline.

Both figures—the number who quit and those who were laid off—rose slightly in March, compared with the prior month, but quits have been outpacing those who were discharged in recent months largely because the pace of layoffs has slowed from its peak during the recession.

On another positive note, the number of hires was also larger than the number of total separations, which include quits, layoffs and retirements. Separations increased 1.2% to 4 million in March from February.

Jobs still aren’t easy to find, though. There were just 2.7 million job openings in March and 5.6 unemployed persons per available job as employers have shied away from widespread hiring.

Small businesses have been particularly reluctant to add to their ranks. An index of small-business optimism rose 3.8 points to 90.6 in April, the National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday. Despite the improvement, owners surveyed said that, on net, they shed more workers than they added for the 27th consecutive month.

A separate report Tuesday showed that sales at U.S. wholesalers climbed 2.4% to a seasonally adjusted $348 billion in March, according to the Commerce Department.

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