A construction worker operating a steam roller in San Francisco in October.


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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Unfilled jobs in the U.S. exceeded the number of unemployed Americans by more than one million as the summer came to a close, a sign it is increasingly difficult for employers to find workers.

There were a seasonally adjusted 7.01 million job openings on the last business day of September, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That compares with 5.96 million jobless Americans actively looking for work during the month that the unemployment rate fell to a 49-year low of 3.7%.

The number of job openings in September fell slightly from an upwardly revised 7.29 million in August, the highest level on record. In August, openings outnumbered the unemployed by 1.06 million.

Before March, job openings had never exceeded unemployed workers in more than 17 years of monthly records. Most of the decline in openings occurred in the South, the region hit by Hurricane Florence in mid-September.

The average time to fill vacant job positions reached a record high of 32.3 working days in September, according to an analysis of underlying data by Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In some higher-skilled industries jobs were open for even longer. Vacancy durations exceeded 40 working days in the information, health services and financial services sectors, the analysis showed.

“Information and health services have seen strong growth in recent years,” said Mr. Davis, who is also a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Which suggests that the growth in demand for jobs in these sectors may be outpacing the growth in supply of people with the requisite skills.”

Difficulty filling high-skilled jobs is causing some businesses to adjust their strategies.

Amazon.com
Inc.

will split its second headquarters between two locations, largely due to concerns about finding enough top tech talent. Foxconn Technology Group is considering bringing in engineers from China to help staff a large facility under construction in southern Wisconsin.

Conversely, while there is a relatively large number of openings in lower-paying sectors, including food-service and retail jobs, positions in those high-turnover fields are filled more quickly, the analysis showed. That is because those industries generally don’t required hard-to-find specialized skills, Mr. Davis said. Still, the length of time to fill those spots has increased in recent years as well.

Leisure and hospitality jobs open in September were for about 25 working days. The category that includes retail jobs were vacant for about 28 days.

A large gap between job postings and job seekers could help push up wages because employers more frequently need to lure away workers who already have jobs. In October, average hourly earnings rose 3.1% from a year earlier, the largest annual raise for workers since the recession ended in 2009.

Tuesday’s Labor Department report showed the rate at which workers quit their jobs held at postrecession highs for the third straight month. That suggest Americans are confident enough in their job prospects to leave employment to find a better match. The rate at which workers were fired or laid off from their jobs in September was just above a record low set earlier this year.

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

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