The job market continued to show steady improvement in the latest government report released Thursday.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell by 16,000 workers to the second lowest level in more than five years during the week that ended April 20, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The seasonally adjusted figure of only 339,000 new jobless claims indicates that the jobs market is picking up, but still has a long way to go to fully recover from the devastation of the recession, economists say.
The four-week average of new jobless claims dropped by 4,500 to 357,500.
“We’re still crawling out of the Great Recession,” said Mark Hamrick, Washington bureau chief at Bankrate.com. “There’s still a lot of slack in the job market. We have a lot of damage repair to do from all the jobs that were lost.”
In total, more than 5 million Americans received unemployment benefits during the week that ended April 6, according to the latest data from the Labor Department. The unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent in March, which is the lowest level in four years.
Economists say the Labor Department report signals that employers are cutting fewer jobs, but warn that they are not necessarily hiring more workers.
“Employers aren’t in a rush to get rid of workers, but what it doesn’t tell us is whether employers will ratchet up the pace of hiring,” Mr. Hamrick said. He pointed to the monthly jobs report due next week as a better indicator of how the labor force is doing.
“We’re not seeing a massive deterioration in the economy at the moment,” he said, “but what we need to see is hiring — that would be the hallmark of a strong recovery.”
Mike Montgomery, senior U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, agreed that the pace of hiring is still lagging.
“The problem in the U.S. economy is not people getting laid off — it’s people not being added,” Mr. Montgomery said.
The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey reflects that economic reality, with fewer workers saying they worry about losing their jobs.
The survey, conducted once every two years, found that only 11 percent of workers consider it “somewhat or very likely” that they would get fired, down from a record high of 16 percent in 2010.
Among college graduates, only 6 percent of workers said it was “somewhat or very likely” they would be laid off, while 59 percent indicated it would be “somewhat or very easy” to find another job.
Sequestration has had no impact on jobless claims, economists say, because government agencies are cutting back on employees’ hours but not laying them off for the most part, and it is too early for government contractors to assess the impact of their bottom line and make layoff decisions.