Employers advertised 3 million job openings, the Labor Department said. That was the same amount as in April and down from 3.1 million in March.
May's figure is higher than the 2.1 million job openings posted in July 2009, one month after the recession ended and the lowest total since the government began recording the data a decade ago. But it is also significantly below the 4.4 million openings recorded in December 2007, when the recession began.
Companies can take anywhere from 1 to 3 months to fill a job opening. And there's heavy competition for each opening.
Roughly 4.7 unemployed people, on average, were competing for each available job in May. That's up from 4.6 in April. In a healthy economy, the ratio is about 2 to 1.
The Conference Board, a business research group, said last month that online job postings dropped 2.3 percent to 4.4 million in June. The two reports signal that a weak stretch of hiring this spring may extend into the summer.
The economy generated only 18,000 net jobs in June and the unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent, the government said last week. That followed an abysmal showing in May, when employers added only 25,000 jobs.
Companies have pulled back sharply on hiring after adding an average of 215,000 jobs per month from February through April. The economy typically needs to add 125,000 jobs per month just to keep up with population growth. And at least twice that many jobs are needed to bring down the unemployment rate.
The slowdown has confounded economists, who expected the economy to improve after overcoming several temporary factors. High gas prices left consumers with less money to spend on other items. And Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami disrupted supply chains in the auto and electronics industries, which slowed U.S. factory production.
Gas prices have fallen since peaking in early May at a national average of nearly $4 per gallon. The average national price Tuesday was $3.64 per gallon, according to AAA. Manufacturing output has also picked up now that Japan's factories are beginning to come back online.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged last month that the impact of the weak housing market and tighter credit might be "more persistent than we thought." The Fed lowered its forecast for growth this year to about 2.8 percent, down from an earlier estimate of 3.2 percent. And it expects unemployment won't fall below 8.6 percent by the end of the year.