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WASHINGTON – U.S. employers advertised fewer jobs in July but hired more workers, a mixed sign that suggests only modest improvement in the job market.

Job openings fell 180,000 in July to 3.7 million, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That’s down from 3.9 million the previous month, which was revised lower.

Overall hiring increased to 4.4 million, up from 4.3 million in June and 4.17 million a year ago. Still, hiring has fluctuated in recent months and remains below the 5 million pace before the recession. Layoffs dropped to 1.5 million, the lowest level on records dating back to 2001.

The latest data on job openings and turnover in the workforce reaffirmed the painfully slow but steady progress taking place over the past three years. The economy is adding jobs, but much of the improvement has come from a drop in layoffs – not rapid hiring.

Employers added 169,000 net jobs in August, and many fewer than previously thought in July and June, the government said Friday. The unemployment rate fell to 7.3 percent, but only because more people gave up looking for work. The government doesn’t count someone as unemployed unless they are actively looking for work.

Last week’s figures reflect net job gains, which is total hiring minus the number of people who were laid off, quit or retired.

The Job Openings and Labor Turnover report, released Tuesday, shows overall hiring levels as well as job openings, layoffs and quits. It provides greater detail than the monthly employment report.