(Bloomberg News) Job openings in the U.S. increased in March to the highest level in more than two years, an indication employers are becoming more optimistic about bringing on new workers.

The number of positions waiting to be filled rose by 99,000 to 3.12 million, the most since September 2008, the Labor Department said today in a statement posted on its website. The number of people hired also climbed and the number of workers fired was little changed.

Payrolls rose in April, extending the longest string of monthly gains since 2006-2007, Labor Department data showed last week. Accelerating job gains are needed to boost consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the world's largest economy.

"Firms remain optimistic and expansion-minded," Aaron Smith, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said before the report. "Although the labor market is gaining momentum, recovery will take awhile."

Job openings increased 3.3 percent in March from a revised 3.03 million in February, the Labor Department report showed.

Another report today shoed the U.S. trade deficit widened more than forecast in March as the highest oil prices in more than two years boosted imports, eclipsing record exports. The gap rose 6 percent to $48.2 billion, the biggest since June, from $45.4 billion in February, the Commerce Department reported. Sales abroad climbed by the most in 17 years.

Health Care, Education

The gain in job vacancies was led by a 61,000 increase in openings at providers of education and health services, followed by government agencies and retailers. Professional and business services were among industries showing fewer positions available.

Today's report helps shed light on the dynamics behind the monthly employment figures. Payrolls rose by 244,000 workers in April after a 221,000 gain the prior month, Labor Department figures showed on May 6.

Employers took on 4.04 million workers in March, or 57,000 more than the previous month, according to today's report. Total firings, which exclude retirements and those who left their jobs voluntarily, increased to 1.6 million from 1.62 million a month before.

Quitting Jobs