Job openings rose in August for the second straight month and layoffs dropped sharply, evidence that the job market is slowly healing.

The number of jobs advertised rose nearly 2 percent, to 3.2 million, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the highest level since April, when temporary census hiring inflated that month's figure.

Job openings at private companies rose slightly to 2.85 million, the highest in 21 months. Among the fields seeing large increases were professional and business services and the hospitality industry.

The gains could signal more hiring in the months to come. Economists say more openings generally lead to hiring increases about 30 to 90 days later.

Even with more openings, the number of available jobs is far below the 4.4 million advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

Private-sector layoffs, meanwhile, dropped sharply to 1.6 million in August, the lowest in more than four years.

In a separate report Thursday, the Labor Department said that weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to their lowest level in nearly three months. First-time jobless claims dropped by 11,000 to 445,000, the department said.

Still, claims remain above levels that would indicate rapid hiring. In a healthy economy, applications for jobless aid usually drop below 400,000.

And while the number of jobs advertised has risen sharply in the past year, that hasn't led to greater hiring.

Job openings have increased by 863,000, or 37 percent, since they bottomed out at 2.3 million in July 2009, according to the Labor department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS.

But the pace of hiring hasn't picked up as much. Overall, employers hired 4.1 million people in August, an increase of only 71,000 from July 2009, the survey said.

The unemployment rate has actually increased during that time, from 9.4 percent to 9.6 percent.

Economists have cited several reasons for the disparity. Many of the unemployed lost jobs in construction or manufacturing, and may not have the skills to find work in sectors where jobs available, such as health care.

And many of those out of work may not be able to move to areas that have more jobs, because they are unable to sell their homes in weak housing markets.

More hiring is critical. Layoffs have dropped back to pre-recession levels. Private-sector layoffs have dropped by almost 1 million since their peak during the recession of 2.5 million, reached in January 2009.

The JOLTS report illustrates how much job churn the U.S. economy experiences each month. Private employers added a net total of 67,000 jobs in August, the government said last month.

But the JOLTS report shows that behind that figure were much larger changes. Companies hired 3.9 million people in August. At the same time, 3.8 million people were laid off, quit or retired.

Job openings rose to 689,000 in the professional and business sectors sector, from 564,000 in the previous month. Openings also rose in hotels and restaurants.

Available jobs dropped in construction, manufacturing and retail.