- Associated Press - Thursday, May 24, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking unemployment aid changed little last week, signaling modest job growth.

The Labor Department on Thursday said weekly unemployment benefit applications dipped by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 370,000.

Applications have leveled off this month after spiking in April to a five-month high of 392,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, was 370,000 last week.

The lower level suggests that hiring could pick up a bit in May from April’s sluggish pace. A drop in applications below 375,000 a week typically suggests that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Economists forecast employers have added 160,000 jobs this month. That figure is above April’s gains but below the pace set this winter. The government will report on June 1 on May job growth.

The unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.1 percent last month.

Part of the reason for the drop is that employers have added a million jobs over the past five months, but it also has declined because some people gave up looking for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking for a job.

Hiring soared over the winter, when applications were dropping steadily. Job gains averaged 252,000 in the December-February period.

The pace of hiring slowed in March and April to an average of 135,000 jobs per month. That slowdown raised fears that the job market could be weakening.

Economists have cautioned that a warm winter led companies to move up some hiring and accelerate other activity that normally wouldn’t occur until spring. That gave the appearance that the economy had strengthened in January and February and weakened in early spring.

And temporary layoffs stemming from spring holidays likely pushed unemployment benefit applications higher in April, economists noted.

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