The Conference Board today announced that its Help-Wanted Advertising Index, a key measure of job offerings in major newspapers across America, dipped one point in March to 38.

In the last three months, help-wanted advertising declined in five of the nine U.S. regions. Largest declines occurred in the East South Central (-13.1 percent), West North Central (-6.7 percent) and East North Central (-5.6 percent) regions. The largest increases occurred in the West South Central (11.7 percent) and Mountain (7.6 percent) regions.

“If the economy cools a little, under the unrelenting pressure of higher energy prices, the labor market might also cool. Even if energy prices were not going through the roof, the biggest roadblock would still be the cost of a new hire,” said Ken Goldstein, labor economist at The Conference Board. “Average hourly wage increases are picking up. Benefit costs (especially to cover health insurance premiums) are also moving higher. And pension costs remain high. Moreover, productivity growth has slowed, which means it cannot offset rising cost pressures the way it did last year.”

New online job ads rose sharply in March, reaching 2.4 million, according to The Conference Board Help-Wanted OnLine Data Series. The March level was 414,600, or 21 percent above the previous month, and followed a small decline in February. In March, there were 1.6 online job ads per 100 persons in the U.S. labor force, compared with 1.33 in February 2006 and 1.44 in January.

The number of new ads in March was significantly higher than the number posted during the summer months, typically the peak period for hiring, the board reported. Large numbers of new job ads are consistent with the robust employment numbers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in recent months, but other labor market indicators are weaker. So the overall job picture is still a bit mixed.

The Conference Board surveys help-wanted print advertising volume in 51 major newspapers across the country every month. Because ad volume has proven to be sensitive to labor market conditions, this measure provides a gauge of change in the local, regional and national supply of jobs.

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