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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job openings in February were the most in nearly 2-1/2 years, a government report showed on Wednesday, indicating an improvement in labor market conditions.
Job openings -- a measure of labor demand -- rose 352,000 to 3.1 million, the highest level since September 2008, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey on Wednesday.
"Today's report reflects continued improvement in the labor market," said Theresa Chen, an economist at Barclays Capital in New York.
"Although skills mismatch is still likely an issue at this point in the recovery, the increase in the availability of jobs should foster further improvement in the employment outlook."
The labor market healing is gathering momentum after lagging the broader economic recovery. Employers added 216,000 jobs in March, with the jobless rate slipping to a two-year low of 8.8 percent.
In February, the job openings rate -- a gauge of how many jobs were still open at the end of the month -- rose to 2.3 percent from 2.1 percent in January.
The rise in job openings in February was led by the private sector, where openings increased sharply in the professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services sectors.
Government job openings also rose, despite budget constraints at state and local governments.
Still, the labor recovery market has a long way to go and job openings remain below the 4.4 million level when the economy slipped into recession. In February, the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings was 4.4 to 1 from 5.1 to 1 in January.
"It means that for 3 out of 4 unemployed workers, there simply are no jobs," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
Layoffs and discharges edged up to 1.59 million from 1.54 million in January.
Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci