U.S. job openings in March were the most in 2.5 years, a government report showed yesterday, pointing to a firming labor market tone.

Job openings — a measure of labor demand — rose 99,000 to 3.12 million, the highest since September 2008, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

It was the first time since November 2008 that job openings have been at or above 3.0 million for two straight months. Still, job openings remain well below the pre-recession level of 4.4 million.

The report was the latest to suggest the labor market recovery remains intact, despite a recent rise in first-time applications for state unemployment benefits and an uptick in the unemployment rate in April.

The private sector accounted for about 88.7 percent of the job openings in March, with most of the vacancies in education and health services, trade, transportation and utilities — as well as professional and businesses services.

Job hires increased to 4.04 million in March. Though hiring has recovered from a low of 3.6 million in October 2009, it remains well below the pre-recession level of 5 million.

The level of layoffs and discharges were little changed at 1.60 million and has declined from a peak of 2.5 million in February 2009.