By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABERWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ U.S. employers have more job openings than at any other time in nearly five years. That's in part because they seem in no hurry to fill them. And it helps explain why the job market remains tight and unemployment high. Even as openings have surged 11 percent in the past year, the number of people hired each month has declined. Why so many openings yet so few hires? Economists point to several factors: Some unemployed workers lack the skills employers want. Some companies may not be offering enough pay. And staffing firms and employment experts say that in a still-fragile economy, many businesses seem hesitant to commit to new hires. They appear to be holding out for the perfect candidate. "We're living in a fear-based environment right now," says Kim First, CEO of The Agency Worldwide, a recruiting firm for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Those who do have jobs these days are unlikely to lose them. Layoffs have sunk to a pre-recession level. But First says that companies feel they can't afford to take a risk by hiring someone who doesn't appear to be an ideal fit for the job they've advertised. "They are really reluctant to make that leap of faith," she says. Companies "need someone to come in and hit the ground running." The Labor Department said Tuesday that the number of job openings rose 8.7 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 3.93 million. That was the most since May 2008. At the same time, companies hired a seasonally adjusted 4.4 million people, just 2.8 percent more than in January. And hiring remained lower than it was a year ago, when it was nearly 4.5 million. The figures suggest that the Great Recession may have transformed the job market in ways that economists still don't fully understand. Normally, more openings lead, over time, to stronger hiring and steadily lower unemployment.