The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 323,000, near the lowest level since June 2008. The figure shows employers are laying off fewer workers, an encouraging sign one day before the government plans to issue its August jobs report.
Weekly applications are just 1,000 above a five-year low reached last month, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four week average, a less volatile measure, declined 3,000, to 328,500. That's the lowest point since October 2007.
Economists forecast that the August jobs report will show employers added 177,000 jobs, up from 162,000 in July. The unemployment rate is expected to remain 7.4 percent.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have fallen 5 percent in the past two months, raising hopes that hiring could pick up.
Still, the unemployment rate is well above the 5 percent to 6 percent range associated with a normal economy. And most of the improvement in the job market has occurred because layoffs have fallen. Hiring, by contrast, remains modest. Fewer layoffs can boost net job growth even when businesses aren't filling many job openings.
Nearly 4.4 million Americans received unemployment benefits in the week that ended Aug. 17, the latest period for which figures are available. That's about 70,000 fewer than the previous week. A year ago, 5.5 million Americans were receiving benefits.
About 80 percent of the jobs created this year have been lower-paying, part-time positions in industries such as hotels, restaurants and retail. Higher-paying industries such as manufacturing and construction have mostly shed jobs since spring.
But some signs indicate that hiring in both industries could pick up. A private survey released Tuesday showed that factory activity grew last month at the fastest pace in more than two years. And manufacturers added jobs, though at a slower pace than in the previous month.
Spending on U.S. construction projects, meanwhile, rose to its highest level in more than four years in July. It was spurred by strength in both housing and commercial building.
The economy expanded at a 2.5-percent annual rate in the April-June quarter, a modest pace but much faster than the 1.1-percent annual rate in the first three months of the year. Home construction and business investment spending were two key drivers of growth.
Many economists think growth is slowing to about a 2-percent annual rate in the current July-September quarter.