- Associated Press - Thursday, May 10, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for unemployment benefits ticked down last week after dropping sharply the previous week, evidence that hiring could pick up this month.

Weekly applications dropped 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 367,000 in the week ending May 5, the Labor Department said Thursday. The previous week’s figure was revised up slightly.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell 5,250 to 379,000.

Applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. A level consistently below 375,000 suggests job growth is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Applications are falling again after rising for most of April. The spike in applications coincided with weaker hiring in March and April, which raised fears that the job market is sputtering after a strong winter.

From December through February, employers created an average 252,000 jobs a month. That period was the best three months of job growth since the recession ended in June 2009, not counting months thrown off by the hiring of temporary census workers in 2010.

The unemployment rate has dropped a full percentage point since August — to 8.1 percent in April.

The recent jobs picture has been clouded by an unseasonably warm winter, which allowed construction firms and other companies to hire earlier than usual, effectively stealing jobs from the spring. Economists are puzzling out how much of the slower hiring in March and April was weather-related payback and how much reflects economic weakness.

More than 500,000 Americans have left the workforce since February. That’s one reason — and not a good one — that unemployment has continued to fall. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren’t counted among the unemployed.

The economy grew at a disappointing 2.2 percent from January through March, a rate consistent with fewer than 110,000 new jobs a month.

There’s still a long way to go. The United States has regained only about 3.8 million, or 43 percent, of the 8.8 million jobs lost during and immediately after the recession.

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits also dropped. That decrease is partly due to the winding down of extended benefit programs. More than 6.4 million people received benefits during the week that ended April 21, down nearly 175,000 from the previous week.

The government did release some good news this week: In March, employers advertised 3.74 million job openings, the most since July 2008. The increase in U.S. job openings suggests that weaker hiring gains in March and April could be temporary. Employers usually take one to three months to fill openings.

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