WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people requesting unemployment benefits last week plunged to a nearly three-year low, bolstering the likelihood that companies will increase the pace of hiring this year.
Applications for unemployment benefits fell by 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the third decline in the past four weeks. Applications are now at their lowest level since May 2008.
The four-week average for applications, a less volatile figure, fell last week to 388,500. That's the lowest level since July 2008, the last time the four-week average was below 400,000.
Applications that remain consistently below 375,000 tend to signal steady declines in the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefit applications peaked during the recession at 651,000.
Analysts are predicting strong job gains in the February employment report, which the government will release Friday. Brightening the outlook for more aggressive hiring, the service sector expanded at the fastest pace in more than five years in February, and the manufacturing sector grew last month at the fastest pace in nearly seven years. And retailers are reporting solid gains for February after the best holiday shopping season since 2006.
Stocks surged after the economic data was released. The Dow Jones industrial average rose by more than 180 points in morning trading.
"Often at this stage of the recovery, when these signals are in place, we see a surge in hiring," said John Ryding, an economist with RDQ Economics.
Economists estimate that employers added a net 175,000 jobs in February. That would mark an improvement from an anemic 36,000 jobs in January when severe winter weather held back hiring.
At the same time, economists think the unemployment rate edged up to 9.1% in February. Unemployment rates often tick up when an improving economy causes out-of-work people who haven't been looking for jobs to start. People out of work aren't