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Yellen's New Jobs Signals Flashing More Yellow

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Fed Chair Janet Yellen wants to jolt us all out of our complacency: There's more to the economy than the unemployment rate, she says. The good news? A new report today shows a big jump in one of the new measures she's pushing us to get to understand. The bad news: The report showed a big gain in only one measure.

The number of job openings companies want to fill jumped by almost 300,000 in February, to 4.2 million, the Labor Department said. That's the highest since January 2008 and more than wipes out the weather-related slowdown in January. But before you get to celebrating, consider this: The number of jobs they actually filled rose only 71,000, to 4.59 million.

Good? Certainly. But like a lot of other jobs numbers these days, not awesome. Not enough to pull the unemployment rate into the 5%-plus range from 6.7% today, and not enough to create short-term pressure for bigger raises -- the metric Yellen has made pretty clear she cares about more than almost anything.

The big disconnect is the one between employers having more openings but not acting with the same speed to fill them. That's one place where the weather is highly likely to have slowed things down over the winter -- on top of the simple logistical problems of scheduling interviews or simply waiting for a prospective waiter or waitress to stop in to a restaurant on a snowy day, the weather added just enough uncertainty to the demand picture to make it logical for employers to wait.

Today's news that small-business confidence is now rising, according to a new National Federation of Independent Business survey is another step in the right direction. More small businesses are planning to boost capital spending and expect to see sales rising, the small-business lobbying group says.

But the list of shaky indicators is still longer.

The rate at which people are quitting their jobs -- known as the "quit rate" -- stayed at 1.7% of the work force, about where it was six months ago. The quit rate matters because it's a sign that workers see the market as healthy enough to take chances -- they're either switching jobs or leaving without having something else lined up. After a blip up last fall, the quit rate has settled in where it is. A healthier quit rate would be 2% of workers leaving voluntarily every month.

And if people aren't quitting, that's a sign that their leverage to get paid more isn't rising as fast -- yet -- as they would like. Raises have been improving in recent months, and forecasters are beginning to argue that they'll accelerate by the second half. And the NFIB survey shows no particular improvement in hiring plans.

The jobs market is about two-thirds of the way back to normal. That's clear from the unemployment rate falling from its 10% peak to something close to its pre-recession averages. And as Rich Miller and Michelle Jamrisko point out in Bloomberg, that same pattern is true of a lot of Yellen's new labor benchmarks too.

All of that makes the spring season crucial -- as we knew it would be.

The keys are continuing the bounce back in retail sales, especially of cars, and seeing more housing construction add fuel to the recovery this spring. As it becomes more clear -- if it becomes more clear -- that the winter lull was only temporary, both the job market and the stock market should be able to shake off their recent blues.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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