Number of Americans quitting jobs reached record high in September

The number and percentage of U.S. workers voluntarily leaving their jobs reached an all-time high in September, according to data released Friday by the Labor Department.

Roughly 4.4 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in September and the "quits rate" rose to 3 percent, according to the latest edition of the Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) survey, each a new record. The number of job openings stayed roughly even in August at 10.4 million.

The surge in American workers voluntarily leaving their jobs is the latest sign of growing worker power in the recovering labor market. 

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Economists see quits as a window into how willing workers are to leave their current job in search of another role with higher compensation or greater personal fulfillment.

Wages have risen rapidly through 2021, particularly for the lowest-paid workers, as businesses struggle to fill millions of jobs. Both the percentage and number of working-age adults in the labor force are still well below pre-pandemic levels, giving those currently seeking jobs greater leverage and opportunities.

“The rise of quitting across the labor market is remarkable, but the concentration among a few sectors is eye-popping. Quits are up the most in sectors where most work is in-person or relatively low paying,” said Nick Bunker, economic research director at Indeed.

Bunker highlighted sharp jumps in quits within the manufacturing as well as the leisure and hospitality sectors — both of which were hit hard by the emergence of COVID-19 and are highly sensitive to health concerns among workers. 

“Quits are up the most in sectors where most work is in-person or relatively low paying,” he said.

“The ‘Great Resignation’ is more a story about strong demand for workers, rather than a rethink of work among higher-income workers.”

While the labor market is giving an upper hand to many workers and job seekers, the uncertain future of millions of workers who’ve yet to return to the job hunt has raised questions about the long-term strength of the recovery. A permanently smaller workforce could hinder the country’s productive capacity and boost pressure on overloaded supply chains.

“We do expect that higher compensation and plentiful openings will draw more workers to reenter the labor force in coming months, helping to ease the tight labor market somewhat. But as the unemployment rate approaches pre-Covid levels next year and is expected to drop further beyond that, the labor market could remain relatively tight throughout the current expansion,” said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide, in a Friday analysis.