One sign of better economic times is when more people start finding jobs. Another is when they feel confident enough to quit them.
More people quit their jobs in the past three months than were laid off, a sharp reversal after 15 straight months in which layoffs exceeded voluntary departures. The trend suggests the job market is finally thawing.
Some of the quitters are leaving for new jobs. Others have no firm offers. But their newfound confidence about landing work is itself evidence of more hiring and a strengthening economy.
"There is a century's worth of evidence that bears out this view that quits rise and layoffs fall as the job market improves," said Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago.
Still, the number of people quitting their jobs is nowhere near what it was before the recession. Economists expect the improvement in the job market to be fitful, rather than consistent. In May, for example, private employers added only 41,000 net jobs after adding 218,000 in April.
Yet the long-term trend points to an improving job market. The economy has created a net 982,000 jobs this year after a recession that wiped out more than 8 million of them.
The government said Tuesday that the number of people quitting rose in April to nearly 2 million. That was the most in more than a year and an increase of nearly 12 percent since January. That compares with 1.75 million people who were laid off in April, the fewest since January 2007, before the recession began.
During the depths of the recession, workers were hesitant to quit — and not only because jobs were scarce. Even if they found new jobs, some feared that accepting it would leave them vulnerable to layoffs. At many companies, layoffs follow a simple formula: Last hired, first fired.
Many clung to their jobs out of fear, said David Adams, vice president of training at Adecco, a national staffing agency. When Adecco tried to recruit workers to fill open positions, it frequently ran into the same obstacle: Few workers felt like betting on a new job that might disappear soon.
Not so much any more. Adecco is seeing more employed workers seeking interviews, rather than laid-off workers searching for a lifeline.
Such optimism was rare in 2008 and 2009. The number of people who quit fell 40 percent, to 1.72 million in September 2009. That was the fewest since the government began tracking the data in 2000. It was down from nearly 2.9 million in December 2007, when the recession began.
Studies have shown that worker morale fell during the recession. Productivity rose as companies squeezed more work out of their employees. That points to a reason quits might keep rising: Overworked employees could jump at the chance to switch jobs as new opportunities arise.
"There is going to be a mass exodus of the top performers as the economy starts to turn around," said Razor Suleman, a consultant who helps companies retain their best workers.