Several new reports out today offer further evidence of a strengthening economy and a promise of accelerated hiring. The Commerce Department reported that retail sales rose 0.4 percent in January. Sales have now increased 21 percent since a recession and are actually six percent above the pre-recession high. Thanks to increased consumer spending, companies are rebuilding inventories, which grew by 0.4 percent in December. The restocking of inventories, in turn, helps boost factory output, which increased by 0.7 percent in January, according to the Federal Reserve. The gains in consumer spending, inventories and manufacturing are essential to job growth. John Challenger, employment authority and CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., says that the new year is starting off on the right foot when it comes to the potential for accelerated job creation. “Employment saw a net gain of 243,000 jobs in January. We’ll need an additional 100,000 each month to start making a significant dent in unemployment, but we are definitely heading in the right direction. It is certainly promising that there were 3.4 million job openings at the end of December, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was up from 3.1 million a month earlier. Renewed efforts by Congress to unshackle homeowners from underwater mortgages may further help the employment situation by giving people increased flexibility to sell their homes and relocate to areas where jobs are being created.” How long will it take for employment to return to pre-recession levels? What are the biggest threats to the recovery? What can long-time job seekers do to take advantage of new employment opportunities?